Mark Sutcliffe to leave Hong Kong FA: how has the CEO performed in the role since he was hired in 2012?

As he prepares to vacate the role, we look at the key areas the Englishman was expected to improve in when he was made HKFA CEO

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2018, 3:30pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2018, 3:29pm

The inescapable truth is Mark Sutcliffe was on a hiding to nothing when appointed as chief executive of the Hong Kong Football Association in 2012.

He replaced the HKFA’s first ever CEO, Gordon McKie, who left after just eight months, and took over the remainder of his three-year contract.

Sutcliffe arrived in the midst of the multimillion-dollar Project Phoenix, a multi-point three-year plan he helped devise as a ‘change agent’ to overhaul Hong Kong football. The price tag brought increased public and press scrutiny.

It has been a transparent reign, with Sutcliffe blogging on his own site and also using platforms such as LinkedIn to chart the progress of Project Phoenix, but not without criticism.

There have been ups and downs and clashes with vested interests, but it’s fair to say he has left the HKFA and local football in a much better position than he found it.

Sutcliffe leaves as he arrived, with a replacement facing a limited period (until 2020) with a pre-existing plan in the middle of it being carried out.

So, six years on with Sutcliffe about to leave the post at the end of September, what has he achieved?

Hong Kong men’s team

The obvious barometer is the success of the men’s representative team – and that has been mixed.

They are currently coachless since Kim Pan-gon left in December 2017 after five years in charge, although that is about to change.

They missed out on the Asian Cup 2019 but were in the hunt until the last game and in their Russia 2018 qualification campaign they also managed to draw twice with China, a remarkable achievement and a source of great embarrassment for China.

The team’s Fifa rankings have steadily increased, by and large, to 142 from 163 in 2012. Their best was 137 in 2015 – the highest since 2007 – but they dropped to 145 by March of this year before the recent improvement.

A low point was the 169 placing in May 2015, almost matching the 170 of 2011 but not the low point of 172 in November 2012.

Sutcliffe unsuccessfully lobbied Fifa to accept HKIDs from permanent residents rather than passports.

The 2015 Olympics under-23 team were a disaster but they reached the round of 16 at the Asian Games the year before in Incheon. The next Asian Games are in Indonesia next month and Hong Kong face Taiwan, Indonesia, Palestine and Laos.

Age group teams

Part of Sutcliffe’s success, based on his own recommendations, has been to implement teams for every age group. As former HKFA and Project Phoenix employee Francis Chung told in August 2016: “I think we went from every second age group to now where there is an age group for every youth league so there is a pathway for every kid at every age.”

The biggest achievement was the under-16s making the 2014 Asian Cup, the first Hong Kong side to do so.

There are now rep teams for every age group from under-12. The Hong Kong under-18 team won an East Asian Football Federation tournament in Guam in 2013.

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Hong Kong Premier League

Clubs opposed the establishment of a new professional league, as recommended by Project Phoenix, but it has been established, albeit not with the independence from the HKFA that was suggested.

It was introduced for the 2014-15 season and this campaign, starting on August 31, will be the fourth. The introduction of a club licence to the Hong Kong Premier League meant that AFC Champions League football became a possibility for Hong Kong sides.

It’s not been without its low points though. South China dropping out in June 2017 meant a scramble to fill places, while this season there still remains doubt as to who will compete.

AFC Champions League

Hong Kong had its first ever representatives in the AFC Champions League group stage in 2017 when Eastern entered thanks to the FA’s regional ranking. They managed a point in their debut campaign. Kitchee were Hong Kong’s representatives in the 2017 edition and they amassed three points, thanks to Hong Kong’s first ever win on this stage. Chen Ching-lung was the man who made history by hitting a last-minute winner against Kashiwa Reysol at Hong Kong Stadium.

Women’s football

Overseen by Betty Wong, who came on as women’s football manager in May 2013, all women’s and girl’s football has been moved under the control of the HKFA since 2012. This has seen rep teams for every two years from under-12, a women’s league and a first women’s youth league. The women’s team are ranked 76, a slight drop from March (71) and the average position (67) since Fifa began rankings.

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Grass roots

A Hong Kong football curriculum has been introduced and youth involvement increased. Coach education has increased dramatically, including the reintroduction of AFC A licence courses. The number of referees has also increased. A futsal league for schools has also been established as well as another for universities and men.

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Project Phoenix (November 2011-October 2014)

Sutcliffe authored this and then became the man to implement it when he replaced McKie. By 2014, with the end in sight, he told the South China Morning Post that 22 of 33 points had been completed and the rest were under way. It was around this time he said Hong Kong football “would die” without increased funding, highlighting a figure of double the annual HK$50 million of the programme.

Sutcliffe, in an August 2016 blog entry, was his own harshest critic: “If I am brutally honest I would say that Project Phoenix and some of the changes we have tried to introduce have brought into focus the long-term structural and cultural problems that have existed for some time, rather than solved them.”

Five-year strategic plan (April 2015-March 2020)

Based on the success of Project Phoenix and the Aiming High – Together proposal, the Legislative Council approved a maximum of HK$25 million per year for five years up until 2020 from the Home Affairs Bureau.

The HKFA also inked a renewed partnership with the Hong Kong Jockey Club for an additional five years in 2015, worth HK$24 million per year, to fund grass roots football.

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department also provides HK18 million per year for this five-year strategic plan.

Sutcliffe wrote on his blog the HKFA has also seen an increase in Fifa funding, increasing five-fold in the two years from 2015.

As per, the HKFA and the government agreed 19 parameters in January 2015 to judge the success of the five-year plan, one of which was to increase the “likes” of the Hong Kong Premier League Facebook page to 18,000 in the 2018-19 season. It has over 44,000 “likes”.

The men’s team ranking is a key target but not included among the performance indicators. The aim of 130 by 2020 has not yet been met.

Critics argue the targets do not involve the professional clubs but for an increase in match attendances.

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Hong Kong Jockey Club HKFA Football Training Centre at Tseung Kwan O

The long-awaited centre is still not open, missing deadlines of April and then July of this year. Sutcliffe wrote in a blog in December 2017 it was nearing completion but it was already a decade delayed. It is finally expected to open later this year on receipt of one final permit.


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At Soccerex in Zhuhai in April 2018, Sutcliffe admitted this was still a problem in Hong Kong football.

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High-profile visitors

The most recent Premier League Asia Trophy in 2017 was a success and any concerns from the previous edition in 2013, when the Hong Kong Stadium pitch was branded dangerous, were assuaged by the newly laid playing surface. Fan attendance was also solid.

The other notable event was the game against Argentina in 2014 to celebrate the HKFA’s centenary.

Fewer attended which resulted in a HK$11 million loss off the pitch and a 7-0 defeat on it.

The HKFA held a Fifa summit in 2017.


The HKFA was fined by Fifa in September 2017 for fans booing the national anthem, something that began to overshadow the football and Sutcliffe took aim at the media for that.

He was also engaged in a public spat with owner Ken Ng Kin over Kitchee’s claims of an “administrative blunder” preventing them and fellow HKPL side Southern from playing in the 2017 AFC competitions. Sutcliffe answered this on his blog in November 2016, but the legal case remains ongoing.

Media accused Sutcliffe of using HKFA funds to make a 2013 trip to watch the team in Guam, which he strenuously denied via his blog.

He also had to deny that the decision to pay the medical bills for Wong Wai, after he picked up an injury while on Hong Kong duty in 2015 was for a photo opportunity.

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Awarded AFC Developing Member Association of the Year in 2015. Nominated again in 2016.