Asian Games: after eight months (and counting) without a football manager, has Hong Kong stumbled on the man for the job?

The protracted search for Kim Pan-gon’s replacement continues, but the man for the job could already be involved in the set-up

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 August, 2018, 5:05pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 August, 2018, 10:05pm

If we learned anything from Hong Kong’s football campaign at the Asian Games, it could be that nothing changes. Hong Kong has now reached the last-16 stage of the last three Asian Games, a span of 12 years, before being dumped out.

This is suggestive of a stunted development during that period, despite sizeable financial investment in the city’s football, especially over the last five years.

This tournament, where the top teams in Asia are required to field development players, should be a useful yardstick for the Hong Kong Football Association (HKFA) to gauge its progress. After all, it’s not as if the national set-up has the major tournaments (Asian Cup – last qualified in 1968, World Cup – never qualified) blocked off in their season planners.

A semi-prestigious tournament like the one in Indonesia this past fortnight should be the type of event that the HKFA strives to go far in.

Alas, not much of note occurred in Indonesia: Hong Kong scraped out of the preliminary stage again, and failed to take the next step, again.

On the bright side, the standing of Kenneth Kwok Ka-lok was enhanced. He guided an average team to the midway point of the competition with professionalism, grace and a degree of tactical endeavour.

As the tournament unfolded, Kwok’s star only rose. He was thoughtful, courteous and honest in any appraisal of his team. He didn’t get too carried away by two wins, or by a solid point against a talented Palestine side, and he didn’t get too down about two losses to better sides when inexperience in his ranks told and lapses in concentration cost his side dear.

Above all else, Kwok consistently pointed to the fact that the young squad he has assembled and nurtured over four years is still in the development phase, and was effusive in his praise of the team, rewarding players with a moment in front of the media when he wanted to single them out for acclaim.

He discussed his tactics ahead of matches several times and it was surprising to see the degree to which his teams carried out his instructions to the letter. Disciplined defensive performances against Uzbekistan and Palestine stood out, while more unencumbered strolls against weaker opposition were notable for an attractive brand of free-flowing football.

He has instilled a sense of decency in his young side too, most obviously exemplified by the post-match ritual of courteous greetings for the (very) small band of supporters who carried banners across the South China Sea following his team.

Every manager will attest to the benefits of a blue print being in place through age-group squads all the way up to the senior team, but without a full-time replacement for Kim Pan-gon eight months after the Korean vacated his post, development has been allowed to stagnate with no clear vision from a man at the top.

And yet, when one suggests that Kwok might be that man to people in Hong Kong football circles – those familiar with the inner workings of the city’s notoriously chaotic football scene, the reaction can best be described as a scoff.

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Surely, given his familiarity with the set-up – he was hired as part of the previous manager’s back-room staff, and his close bond with the players who will lead Hong Kong in upcoming major qualification campaigns, he should at least be part of the discussion around the next manager.

Instead, his detractors point to his lack of experience and his modest playing career, his low profile and a lack of explicit support from any of the Hong Kong football community’s shadowy power brokers.

What a ridiculous suggestion that a young coach who displays ambition and decency, who commands respect as well as adulation from his players, a trusted lieutenant of one of the most successful coaches in the modern era of Hong Kong football, a coach with tactical acumen, who prizes preparation, who encourages his young players to respect fans of the team while defending them ferociously, and has a vision for the development of the local game, could be suitable.

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Far better to make an impact appointment. To bring in somebody with a range of bigger jobs on his CV, regardless of success in the role. Perhaps they could come in, oversee a bounce, before struggling with the infernal affairs of a football culture beyond their experience and pay grade, then take off when a better offer comes along leaving a job part-way done. And the cycle begins again.

The managerial limbo has gone on so long now that preparation for the upcoming East Asian Football Championship qualifying campaign has surely been affected.

The reasons for the delay are said to be political. The hiring of a new coach was put on hold until government funding was secured that would allow the appointment of the “right” coach.

After weeks of speculation that Taiwan manager Gary White would be Kim’s long-awaited replacement, he is now reported to be opting for a move to China to coach their under-19 side.

While that news is not thought to put the HKFA’s search for the “right” coach all the way back to square one, it seems one solution has been staring them in the face all along.

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