Why English Premier League is confident there will be no repeat of the fiasco last time Hong Kong hosted Asia Trophy
League’s MD says he has had reassurances much-maligned Hong Kong Stadium will not turn into a ‘killer pitch’ once again when Liverpool and co. come to town
The English Premier League is confident Hong Kong will put on a terrific show for the Asia Trophy next month – after the last edition hosted in the city attracted headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons.
Local favourites Liverpool, 2015-16 champions Leicester City, Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion will take part in the tournament, on July 19 and 22.
The last time Hong Kong hosted, in 2013, days of rainstorms turned the much-maligned surface at Hong Kong Stadium into a quagmire – it was branded a “killer pitch” by then-Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio and elicited scorn from the ranks of global media in town to cover the event. Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City were even rumoured to have been on the brink of pulling out before being persuaded not to.
But Richard Masters, the Premier League’s managing director, said he was confident a repeat of the fiasco was unlikely – and that the league wouldn’t have returned otherwise.
“It’s not a worry for us,” he insisted. “We’ve been working very closely with the Hong Kong FA and the stadium itself and the guy who runs the pitch and we know it’s been completely relaid and invested in fully.
“Spurs played out here last week and it rained dramatically the day before and the pitch held up very well.
“We’re not concerned about the pitch but obviously we remember 2013 very well – and I don’t think we would have come here if we didn’t have reassurances.
“We’re in constant dialogue with the Hong Kong FA, it’s not like we just pick up the phone every four years.”
This year’s event was initially planned to be split between Hong Kong and mainland China, but the ease and familiarity of Hong Kong seems to have won out.
“The only absolutely permanent part of the plan was to come to Hong Kong,” Masters said. “We did look at a dual venue but in the end operationally it was very difficult. We’re here for two days and we’re delighted with that.
“It’s a big touring party particularly with four clubs and you’ve got to make sure you can deliver a successful event. In the end we’ve decided to do it all in Hong Kong.
“The clubs will be bringing pretty much their entire playing squad, there’s a lot of support staff as well. We work with the clubs, each time we do it the party sizes get a little bigger, both from the clubs and our side as there’s extra media demands, the standards of delivery get higher and you just need more people to make sure everything’s spot-on and to Premier League standard.”
Masters described Asia’s fans as “the source of the river” as the biggest football league in the world tries to stay on top.
“Asia is hugely important for us – if you look at the Premier League today 25 years on from when it was born, the audiences are strongest in Asia,” he said. “There’s a whole generation of fans that fell in love with English football in the 80s and 90s in places like Hong Kong and that really is the source of the river. We never take those audiences for granted and that’s one of the reasons we do events like this.
“It’s the eighth Premier League Asia Trophy that we’ve staged and the fourth in Hong Kong,” he added. “Why do we keep coming back? Because we know we’ll get a fantastic welcome. There are millions of football fans in this country and many of them follow the Premier League week-in, week-out.”
Hong Kong Football Association chief Mark Sutcliffe cast off any pretence of neutrality as he looked forward to the event.
“I’m a Liverpool fan so I couldn’t be happier,” he joked, saying he couldn’t wait to see the Reds’ passionate manager Juergen Klopp shouting and bawling from the sidelines. “Thanks to the Premier League for putting their faith in Hong Kong again.
“I think it’s such a fantastic opportunity for the people of Hong Kong to come and watch teams from what is undoubtedly the best league in the world ... we hope people across Hong Kong, particularly young people, will be inspired to play football.”
As well as the four matches, a host of community and fan engagement events will take place, including local referees getting coached by Premier League whistler Bobby Madley, a coaching workshop focused on women coaches and encouraging girls to play football, a conference with the Asian Football Confederation focusing on social development through football and an open training session for fans. The Premier League will also make a “legacy payment”, believed to be around US$100,000 to the HKFA for community development.