HK$500 million masterplan: how Hong Kong football hopes to capitalise on excitement generated by World Cup qualifiers against China
Chief executive Mark Sutcliffe says new training centre at Tseung Kwan O will be ‘game-changer’ as he lays out five-year plan to transform the sport
After Hong Kong football’s most successful year in living memory, Mark Sutcliffe admits that maintaining momentum in 2016 is going to be a huge challenge – but insists that plans being put in place now can transform the game for years to come.
The Hong Kong Football Association has more than HK$450 million to spend before 2020 from the government, Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) and Jockey Club Charities Commission, a sum to instil envy in every other sport. The challenge for Sutcliffe, the chief executive, is to ensure that money sets up a firm foundation for the future.
Last year saw almost unprecedented interest in the national team, though a large part was down to two 0-0 “derbies” against China, with many taking localist sentiment to the terraces.
It’s going to be “difficult to replicate the excitement” admits Sutcliffe, 53. But while a five-year plan including initiatives around grass-roots development, a universal coaching curriculum and a long-awaited training centre may not make for such tasty headlines as bloodying the nose of “big brother”, he’s confident they will serve Hong Kong football better in the long run.
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Primary is the new training centre on a former landfill site in Tseung Kwan O. Sutcliffe points to a bulging folder behind his desk documenting some 20 years’ worth of failed plans, but the HKFA “are hoping to put a spade in the ground” in August after the government finally signed off on a land grant and the HKJC awarded HK$133 million for construction. It will be home to Hong Kong’s representative teams, with three grass pitches for them and three artificial ones open to anyone.
“There’s lot of work to be done between now and [starting construction] ... making sure we get the specification right because we want to be able to play on the pitches in the autumn of 2017,” says Sutcliffe. “It’s fundamental to the delivery of our programme.
“It’s really detrimental to football that we’ve got nowhere for the team to train. One day they’ll be training on an artificial pitch at Shek Kip Mei, the next a grass pitch at So Kon Po. That applies to all our teams, they’re totally peripatetic and it’s not helpful at all.
“Getting that dedicated facility is the main game changer. Apparently we use 25 per cent of [the LCSD’s] total pitches in Hong Kong for our programmes. If we can get an extra 8,000 sessions a year [at the training centre] it enables us to do a hell of a lot more work at all levels.”
Also key will be transferring some of the rediscovered passion for the national team to the moribund Premier League, with its nine teams and ageing, dwindling fanbase (506 watched last week’s Pegasus v Wong Tai Sin at the 40,000-capacity Hong Kong Stadium).
“If you want to watch football in Hong Kong you can sit in the comfort of your own living room and watch three [English] Premier League games in a row and it’s clearly a higher standard,” he says. “We’ve got to get better quality on the pitch which takes time, we’ve got to improve the match-day experience.
“One thing we’re trying to do which links to the representative team is build bonds with some of the personalities, and to try to change the demographic of the fanbase which still tends to be a bit elderly guys. We’re launching a campaign in which we pick up on the characters of the [Hong Kong internatinoal players] ... if fans relate to them they can go watch them week-in, week-out in the Premier League.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but it’s important we get the Premier League right because obviously it’s the professional game that attracts people to participate in the first place and they also provide the players for the representative team.”
“They see the FA double in size in the last four years and has got all this money and they feel it’s not helping them directly so I have some sympathy for that, but there are difficulties in giving public money to private organisations and to some extent they’ve got to help themselves,” Sutcliffe says.
“What we’re trying to do now is find ways in which the FA can be more proactive in helping the clubs gain access to good quality facilities – which again is where the training centre comes in – and we’re also hoping to get some extra funding that we can channel into the clubs to set up their own youth academies, because we’ve got to create a better pathway to get people into the game,” he adds.
More efforts will be made to help with marketing and promotion to attract fans, he says, while the FA hopes to convince division one clubs that stepping up to the Premier League, with the increase in player salaries it entails, is worthwhile.
Sutcliffe also hopes Hong Kong can “ride on the back” of China’s new-found enthusiasm for football under Xi Jinping, predicting that the “massive investment” there will “eventually be mirrored in Hong Kong”.
Further down the line, the Kai Tak Multi Sports Development can finally give the national team a modern home – and Sutcliffe warns that football and rugby must be given priority.
“It can’t come too quickly – the existing stadium has seen better days, we’ve had problems with the pitch, but even if you get that right the rest is not state-of-the-art any more. We’ve got a lot of demand from European teams, international teams, to come to Hong Kong for all sorts of reasons and they need better facilities.
“I’m sure there’s still a lot of wrangling ahead [with every sports body in the city eager to push their claims to consultants KPMG] ... [But] you have to be realistic – football and rugby are going to be anchor tenants.
“The government has to take into account that football will be the main user and generator of income for the main stadium. They’ve got to be pretty firm in saying this is the main use of the stadium and designing around that ... you don’t want to end up with a compromise. I’m biased but you don’t get the same atmosphere in a stadium that has been designed for athletics and other sports – the atmosphere at Mong Kok is phenomenal because fans are so close to the pitch.”