How Hong Kong football turned a globally significant good news story into an embarrassing farce

Chan Yuen-ting is set to become the first female manager in the Asian Champions League but that has been completely drowned out amid a public slanging match between the clubs and the HKFA’s chief

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 November, 2016, 5:33pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 November, 2016, 8:28pm

The Asian Champions League is set to have a female manager in it for the first time as Chan Yuen-ting leads Hong Kong champions Eastern for the city’s debut in the group stage of the region’s top competition.

A brilliant good-news story which could get Hong Kong football global attention. Just this week the BBC named Chan as one of their 100 Women of 2016. Next week she could be named Women’s Coach of the Year at the Asian Football Confederation’s awards.

The Hong Kong FA is also nominated as Developing Association of the year, a prize it won last year. Add the national team’s stirring (albeit fruitless) performances in World Cup qualifying and more recently the EAFF Cup, the fact that a long-overdue training centre in Tseung Kwan O is under construction and should open next summer, improvements in coach education and grassroots development etc, and it seems there’s plenty of good news in Hong Kong football.

But drowning it all out are the blasts from shotguns squarely pointed at officals’ own feet, in a saga of infighting, backstabbing, whining and public arguing of which most Hong Kong kindergartners would be embarrassed.

A recap: champions Eastern lost a sponsor and decided they couldn’t compete in the Champions League. It was decided Kitchee would replace them with Southern taking Kitchee’s place in the qualifying play-off. Eastern quickly changed their mind but the HKFA board rejected their plea for reinstatement. The AFC pointed out that Hong Kong would lose its group stage place if runners-up Kitchee were nominated, and at a hastily convened board meeting, it was decided Eastern would be put forward after all.

‘Hong Kong football has shot itself in the foot’ – FA chief hits back at clubs as war of words over Champions League continues

All a bit farcical and embarrassing – but not as much as the public slanging match around it.

Kitchee’s owner Ken Ng Kin lambasted HKFA chief executive Mark Sutcliffe, Southern threatened legal action against him and/or the HKFA and a furious Sutcliffe hit back in a 2,000-word-plus essay in which he went through the fiasco in detail, saving particular ire for Kitchee.

Ng duly lashed back on his Facebook page on Friday, accusing Sutcliffe of a “dereliction of duty” and declaring he would take the matter to a tribunal.

Ng, one of the powerbrokers in Hong Kong football, seems determined to have Sutcliffe’s head.

It is indeed remarkable that apparently no-one realised that Hong Kong would lose its group stage place if the champions were not nominated. Ng’s main gripe seems to be that Sutcliffe was made aware of this in October but didn’t tell anyone; Sutcliffe argues that he only heard third-hand through unofficial channels so could not act.

Chan Yuen-ting poised to become first female head coach in the AFC Champions League after Eastern are reinstated

Sutcliffe also admits, “I was not personally aware that the HK application [to the AFC] needed to be submitted on Monday [November] 14th until the evening of Sunday 13th.”

Someone at the FA should have been on top of that, and as CEO the buck might stop with him.

“The chief executive is highly paid and paid with public money,” wrote Ng, a man not shy of getting his solicitors involved whenever anything doesn’t take his fancy.

“The majority of the funds [the HKFA is] in charge of is public money. It’s necessary to work in the sunlight.”

Whether you believe he is campaigning for transparency on behalf of the taxpayer – he is correct that the government has massively funded the HKFA – or is pursuing a vendetta, you do wonder if a job advert for a new CEO might soon be posted.

If so, Sutcliffe is unlikely to be too bothered – after four years of trying to keep the clubs’ toddler-like behaviour in check, he’s likely ready for a return to friends and family in the UK and some well-earned R&R.

By any measure he has done a good job for local football, admittedly with huge government funding – but taking on the clubs so publicly did rather feel like a lengthy resignation letter.

Meanwhile, across the border, China is throwing gigantic sums of money at football and Hong Kong is ideally placed to capitalise, but isn’t.

For example, I was recently asked why the clubs and FA don’t band together to get a team in the Chinese Super League. Fans would love seeing a higher standard of football and big-name players, and those stars would much rather live in Hong Kong than sample the delights of, say, Shijiazhuang.

The words “brewery” and “p***-up” might have featured in my reply – as perfectly evidenced by this latest fiasco.