Soccer in Hong Kong needs to clean up its act to win back fans
What better name for a project launched in 2011 to revive Hong Kong soccer and salvage its reputation than phoenix, a legendary bird that rose from its own ashes in youthful renewal? Far from living up to the legend, however, the sport has further tarnished its reputation by shooting itself in the foot. In the latest example, just this week, ICAC officers took a number of Happy Valley players away for interview after a 5-0 drubbing in a first division game amid match-fixing allegations, later arresting six players plus an official, a sponsor's representative and a former player. A few days earlier, Tuen Mun said it would sack its mainland sponsor and deregister its players after an own goal in injury time assured a suspicious defeat in another game.
Happy Valley and Tuen Mun have been sidelined for this month pending an investigation. These are not isolated instances of the game being brought into disrepute. Six months ago Hong Kong supporters were condemned for hurling racial abuse in a friendly against the Philippines. This not only broke race discrimination laws but also codes of conduct that Hong Kong is bound to uphold if it is ever to meet benchmarks for Asian Football Federation competition and regain the respect it craves. Go back to 2010, and graft-busters questioned members of the city's under-21 side about bribery allegations.
Project Phoenix has cost taxpayers HK$20 million a year on top of existing subsidies of up to HK$14 million. It has yet to win over the Hong Kong public - despite their love of the game, as shown by the huge turnouts for matches involving overseas teams. The poor return reflects a disconnect at the top level, with little money being filtered down to where it would do most good - troubled clubs and their players. This does nothing to discourage bribery.
Project Phoenix is up for renewal and Hong Kong Football Association chief executive Mark Sutcliffe has put the sport's hand up for a share of tax revenue from legal football betting. Taxpayers are entitled to an accounting for what appears to have been a dubious investment before the government signs off on anything. The HKFA's plan to check the finances of club backers ahead of the establishment of a new premier league in September is a start in restoring the local game's standing and reputation. But officials, more than players, should be held to account for years of decline in public esteem.