Left Field: Club supremos hold all the cards in running national squad

Club supremos' grip on national soccer squad preparations is even tighter after Lunar New Year Cup bailout

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 January, 2013, 6:22am

The Yala National Park, deep in the south of Sri Lanka where I'm on holiday, is a wonderful way to get up close and personal with nature. It is one of the largest wildlife sanctuaries in the island with the main attraction being leopards. I am unlucky. The day I choose to visit the park bounded by river and sea, the only animals I see are elephants, basking crocodiles, wallowing wild buffaloes and water hogs plus manifold species of birds.

The leopard is missing. Our driver and tracker says the heavy rains the country has been experiencing have left plenty of waterholes deep inside the jungle which means the cat does not have to come close to those near the beaten track to quench thirst. You have to be lucky to spot this beautiful animal. There are only 37 left in Yala and they are an endangered species. In the past decade, 35 leopards have been killed by poachers who prize the lovely coat.

Although deep in the jungle, the safari hotel I stay in has all the modern amenities including Wifi, which enables me to keep in touch with the world and Hong Kong.

I read with astonishment the story that certain members of the Hong Kong Football Association are putting their own money on the line to guarantee that next month's Lunar New Year Cup will go ahead and that it will not lose money.

Like the leopard, this tournament has come close to extinction. Dating back to the 1950s, it has been one of the longest-running tournaments held under the purview of the HKFA, which has depended on it as a major source of income. In the past, the HKFA received an annual sanction fee of HK$3 million from sponsor Carlsberg who would invite leading national teams to the showpiece. A heady relationship of 10 years ended in 2007 when the brewer pulled out. It signalled hard times, which continue to date.

In 2008, the HKFA staged the tournament on its own, and ended up losing HK$4 million. The association gave up the tournament in 2010, handing it over to local club Kitchee.

After a three-year break during which individual clubs ran the tournament, the HKFA has decided to return as the official organiser, albeit with a weakened cast. Thai champions Muangthong United, mainland side Shanghai East Asia, and Busan I Park of South Korea are the invited teams, along with a Hong Kong League XI. Everything would be dandy, if not for the news that four leading members of the HKFA are underwriting this tournament. They are HKFA chairman Brian Leung Hung-tak, vice-chairmen Steven Lo Kit-sing and Pui Kwan-kay, and board director Ken Ng Kin. There would be no harm in this if not for the fact that people like Lo and Ng are also prominent owners of clubs - Lo running the show at South China and Ng with Kitchee. Does this raise a conflict of interest? It would seem so according to the other bit of news I read deep in the jungle of Yala.

This past week, caretaker coach Kim Pan-gon began twice-a-week training sessions with the national squad who are preparing for the 2015 Asian Cup qualifiers, which get underway on February 6 with an away game against Uzbekistan.

Kim said he would not be able to help Hong Kong if the national squad met only once a week for training. So the Korean went ahead and arranged two consecutive days of training. His move was unpopular with Kitchee, the two-time reigning league champions who said they could only release their players for one training session.

Kim's reasoning was: "If we had a competitive league, we may need only one training session a week or even fewer. But at the moment, we need more training because the quality of our league is not strong enough. Even if we brought Alex Ferguson here but had just one practice session a week, I don't know that he could do much good."

Kitchee's players did not attend the first training session last Monday, but showed up for the second one. It would have been difficult for Kim to run his training session without them. But does he have any chance of laying down the law and insisting that everyone turn up or they are dropped? Absolutely not, for people like Ng call the shots.

More so now that they are underwriting a tournament which is crucial to the finances of the HKFA. How can the HKFA make a ruling that country, in this case city, comes before club when the line between gamekeeper and poacher is blurred? The HKFA's position has been weakened. Kim will have to play with the hand he is dealt. A situation common to many national coaches in the past.