Lam Ka-wai and Chan Man-kin will set Hong Kong alight at the Beijing Olympics six years from now. Or so prays the Hong Kong Football Association which has embarked on an ambitious programme to take SAR soccer into the realms of technicolour fantasy, a la South Korea and their marvellous World Cup odyssey. Lam and Chan are among a group of 25 boys who have been identified by the Hong Kong FA as future Ahn Jung-hwans. They are all under 17 years. Let's call them 'The Boys to Beijing'. And in 2008, when the world's biggest sporting event arrives on our doorstep, the HKFA hopes they will spearhead Hong Kong's Olympic campaign having transformed from boys to men. 'Korea and Japan showed us at this World Cup that it was not luck that got them so far. It was down to years of planning. We have taken their example and put in place a programme which we hope will bear fruit in time for the 2008 Olympic Games,' says HKFA general secretary Martin Lam. The forward-looking plan is multi-faceted. And for it to work a number of factors will have to materialise, one of which is much-hoped for support from the Government and those sports policy-makers who in their wisdom decided five years ago to kick soccer out as a Focus Sport from the Sha Tin Sports Institute. More on that later. Let's dwell first on the commendable fact that the HKFA has decided on a positive plan of action - six full years before any results are expected. 'We identified 25 boys earlier this year and they are now officially the under-17 Hong Kong squad. This squad will be managed by the Hong Kong FA and we have asked Kwok Ka-ming to be its supervisor and head coach,' revealed Lam. The 25 were picked from a Young Athletes Training Scheme - a joint project between the HKFA and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. They were chosen from a final batch of 200 kids and now carry the flame in their hearts. Kwok, a former Hong Kong coach (he was famously behind Hong Kong's shock win over China in a qualifying match for the 1986 World Cup) and current chief technical consultant to the HKFA, oversees the training of the squad three times a week at grounds scattered across the SAR. 'We have to start at the beginning and with our youth. There is no point trying to raise the standards of the First Division. We have to look at the youngsters and they must have a clear objective. Whether we are successful or not is another matter, but we must try,' Kwok said. Kwok pointed to Japan and Korea, and even Singapore, as role models for Hong Kong to follow. 'Japan wanted to host the 2002 World Cup as far back as 1990. For six years from 1990 they worked on winning the rights to host it and once they won it in 1996, they concentrated on building a team capable of holding its own with the rest of the world. 'Likewise Korea, who began their preparations as far back as 1994. Look how they played so superbly. Singapore has a 10-year plan begun in 2000 which aims at qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. We too need a long-term goal and the Beijing Olympics is our target,' Kwok said. The HKFA's grand plans for the squad in the future include providing educational assistance, one day a week, when the entire squad will troop up to the HKFA headquarters in Homantin where they will receive tutorials on everything from English to maths. 'We first got the approval of the parents who are now all solidly behind the programme. We want to provide the boys with technical and academic support. We will also closely monitor their diet and nutrition,' Lam pointed out. When the new football season gets under way, the squad is pencilled in to play in the Third Division League. 'The plan is to start here and then gradually move up in the next few years,' envisions Lam. So by 2005, the Boys to Beijing could be playing in the Hong Kong First Division. 'This squad have got to play competitive matches every week. This is the only way they can improve. If in a couple of years time they are good enough to play in the First Division, then they should be given the opportunity,' added Kwok. In another enterprising move, the HKFA has already approached the Guangdong Sports Commission asking them for permission to field this wet-behind-the-ears squad in October's regional Games in Guangzhou. 'It is a six-year plan and we must not hang around. We must provide them with as much experience as we can, and as soon as possible,' says Lam. Already the squad have played in an international tournament - at the Asian Under-17 Championships in Myanmar in April. They beat Singapore and lost to Myanmar in that event - a satisfying debut as rivals Singapore have more resources and funds than Hong Kong's fledgling project. Lam is quick to point out that while the HKFA has taken the initial hard yards, a boost is needed from other bodies, especially the Government, and private sponsors. 'We just don't have the resources to do it all alone, especially in these hard economic conditions. We need help from the Government, which has got to provide us with a training facility for the exclusive use of our representative sides,' said Lam. At present Hong Kong representative sides have to train at different venues dotted all over the SAR and are forced to share the hired pitches with other teams. There have been instances where the senior national squad has been forced out because the pitch had been booked by others. 'What we have asked from the Government is a pitch exclusively for our use. In the long run, the HKFA needs a pitch and a headquarters where a football academy can be maintained. In the short term we need the pitches at the Hong Kong Sports Institute,' Lam said. The Sports Institute is a sore topic for local soccer. Five years ago soccer was booted out of the halls of Hong Kong's elite training facility after being labelled a no-hoper as far as winning medals were concerned. The banishment was followed by the Sha Tin fields being turned into a golf driving range with the ostensible aim of attracting the corporate dollar. That grandiose plan has now fallen by the wayside. 'It is a shame what happened. They took football out and turned the fields into a driving range. We hope we can get back into the Institute. It is a must if our plan is to work,' Lam stressed. There are three pitches at the Sports Institute. The one that is most suited is unfortunately an artificial strip. The HKFA hopes that it will be converted to grass. The HKFA also hopes fervently that they will be able to find sponsors who will believe in the Boys to Beijing. 'We are afraid that there will be dropouts. At present all that we can afford to give them is a small allowance to cover their travel costs. But it would be nice if we could give them a monthly allowance. To do this we need sponsors,' said a HKFA spokesman. In today's poor economic climate, the HKFA will be lucky to find a sponsor willing to fund a dream. As it is, the HKFA is running on an empty tank with gate receipts having dwindled yearly and tournaments robbed of sponsors last season. But despite all these obstacles, things are looking up for soccer. Government policy-makers have realised that soccer can be more than just a mere game and that it can become a driving force for nations to rally around - viz the Korean Red Devils phenomenon. In its recent Sport Policy Review report, a blueprint for Hong Kong's sporting future, the Home Affairs Bureau suggested that more emphasis should be placed on team sports. A sure sign that the blinkers are at last off and that soccer would soon get the support it deserves. 'Soccer is the world's most popular sport and we would like to see Hong Kong qualifying for the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 simply because it will be held in the mother country,' said Con Conway, vice-president of the Sports Federation and Olympic Committee, recently. The Boys to Beijing now carry the flame. As Kwok says, whether they are successful or not, is another matter. But right now all the help should be given to realise a dream. The HKFA prays for this.