The efforts an Englishman in Asia is making to improve Hong Kong football

In Depth

Much has been said about the investment into the Chinese Super League, but not every Asian country has enjoyed such growth of their national league…

Carlos Tevez was reported to be made the highest-paid footballer in the world when he joined Shanghai Shenhua last summer, and he is far from the only big-name player to have been attracted to China.

The likes of Oscar, Hulk, Alex Teixeira and Jackson Martinez have all headed to East Asia in recent times, while Paulinho earned a move to Barcelona this summer courtesy of his displays for Guangzhou Evergrande.

The Indian Super League has also managed to attract players from Europe, but the situation is rather different in Hong Kong.

Joshua Scheider-Weiler spoke to Hong Kong FA CEO Mark Sutcliffe about the challenges in developing their Premier League and national team, as well as some of the wider issues in Asian football…

In your blog you wrote the evolutionary approach needs to be replaced by a more revolutionary approach in Hong Kong. What examples can you give us?

“We got a lot of support from the government for what we’re doing in terms of football development generally. But there is a reluctance which I can fully understand on the part of our public sector partners to invest in the professional side of football in Hong Kong because they don’t see that necessarily as what they should be doing.

“They don’t think they should be putting money into what are in effect private sector entities. But that has happened in other countries. You know it happens in the Middle East. It happens in East Asia as well where governments are more supportive in terms of the resources they will put into the professional level, and in Hong Kong we haven’t done that.

“When the J-league started for example in Japan there was a partnership basically between the clubs, the private sector industry and the government. The government gave the industrial partners tax incentives to invest in football, and the government supported that through district and provincial funding.

“So actually all the money that we’ve had from the government has gone into other aspects of the work that we do. It goes into women’s football, goes into youth development, goes into coach education.

“I think that we need a more interventionist approach now in terms of the professional game because if we don’t do that we’re in danger of kind of just stagnating a little bit, if not going backwards.

“So I’d like to see more tax incentives for companies to invest in football. I’d like to see the legalization of gambling on football betting on a proportion of that money going back into the clubs.

“We were criticised by our clubs for not being able to give them enough resources for them to develop. And I have some sympathy for that point of view.

“But we don’t have the resources and we don’t have the ability to use either corporate or government funding to help to build up our club infrastructure and network.”

What kind of things are you doing to help with player development, and how are you tracking that development?

“They say the golden age when learning to play football is probably when they’re between six years old and 12 years old. But we haven’t had systematic methodology for teaching and training young players. So they’re suffering.

“They’re improving, but they’re not as technically competent as players from other countries. [The work] starts when they’re really young so you won’t start seeing the results for another five years or possibly even longer.

“There are a number of benchmarks we can use. Obviously you know the results on the pitch matter. You can’t hide the results, they are what they are.

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READ: Foreign coaches, homegrown rules and China’s effort to develop own talent

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“Then you can bring it down to a more individual level. We can track the technical ability of our players. We can track the physicality of our players, and that’s one thing that we do need to work on and have been working on in Hong Kong.

“People from Asia are physically different to those from some other continents and we suffer here because young players don’t have an opportunity to play as frequently as in other countries. They’re not training with the same frequency and intensity and therefore their levels of physicality are quite low in comparison.

“We’re trying to improve that and it’s very easy to measure and benchmark using certain standardised physical tests that we will apply to different age groups. We will continue to do that and to continue to see how we’re improving in relation proportionately to other kids from other countries.”

What are the attributes that the players tend to lack in comparison to players from other countries?

“When I first came to Hong Kong people were telling me how fast and agile local people were. You kind of intuitively think, ‘yeah, that’s probably right’.

“In conjunction with the Hong Kong Jockey Club we did a scientific study and compared the results of players from certain age groups in Hong Kong with players from the UK and actually we found that in all of the parameters we were probably 10 to 30 percent lower than the benchmarks for players from the UK in terms of speed, agility, endurance and the other factors.

“So that gave us a starting point and that’s what we’re measuring ourselves against now in trying to improve that.

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READ: Michael Beale interview: The problems with English youth football

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“But it’s basically a factor of life in Hong Kong. There is one pitch for every hundred thousand people in Hong Kong. In the UK it is one pitch for every two thousand people so there’s 50 times more pitches, 50 times more opportunities for kids to play football in the UK than there is in Hong Kong.

“The kids in Hong Kong tend to live in high rise buildings with very little space. We only have seventy-five 11-a-side pitches for seven and a half million people. So it’s the opportunity to play which is the problem.

“I don’t think it’s their innate ability and the natural physique. I just think it’s a lack of opportunity and perhaps in some cases a lack of understanding of the level of work that you need to put in to get a good result.”

So how have you tried to overcome that problem and maximize the little space that you do have?

“Hong Kong is probably one of the most densely populated places in the world, and in terms of the value of real estate it is certainly the most expensive part in the world. So we just don’t have the space. And if there is a space available then it is going to be used for something else.

“We can only tackle certain things, but we’re working with the government on a program of converting natural turf pitches into artificial pitches because you can use them 20 times more frequently. So that maximizes the use of individual pitches.

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“Also, we’ve now finally managed to secure a piece of land ourselves again in partnership with the government and we’re building our own football training centre which will give us another six pitches, three natural turf and three artificial pitches. It will have some community use.

“But the overriding priority for that particular centre is to develop our own high performance players and our coaches and our referees. So this is going to kind of give us a quantum leap forward because for the first time ever we’ll have our own dedicated facilities.”

You’ve said that football needs to be part of a nation’s DNA. It seems that in Hong Kong, football is part of the DNA but European football, not Hong Kong football. Is that a fair assessment?

“In terms of watching definitely. It’s frustrating for me that we don’t get bigger crowds at our Premier League games. People keep reminding me of the so-called glory days of Hong Kong football in the 70s and 80s where they would regularly get 20,000 people turning up at the match.

“But in those days you couldn’t watch football on the television. And obviously the English Premier League and some of the other leagues now, if you want to watch good quality football, you can do it from the comfort of your own home and can watch three games consecutively. The standard of football is obviously a lot higher than it is in Hong Kong.

“So football as you say is part of the DNA in terms of participation but not in terms of spectating at a local level. And that’s part of our job at the FA to make it a better spectacle to improve the overall spectator experience. And we still got quite a long way to go in that respect.”

Do you have any thoughts or concerns about any wider issues in Asian football?

“We’re talking about the sustainability of clubs and whether some sort of financial fair play mechanism should be introduced into Asia. I think it is not necessarily directly relevant for Hong Kong but a lot of the other countries.

“Particularly now in China, you see clubs that are expanding very quickly and perhaps stretching themselves beyond their means.

“They’re very heavily reliant on one or two individuals or one sponsor. And I think that’s a concern generally across Asia and in other confederations as well because UEFA had similar issues in the past.

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READ: British coach working in China predicts new football superpower

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“The sustainability of clubs is an issue and it’s partly driven by transfer fees and the expectations of players in terms of their salaries.

“So whether there should be a salary cap, whether a club should be required to only spend a certain proportion of its self-generated revenue on player compensation. Those are the sort of issues that we’ve been talking about.”

Are you in favour of some sort of financial fair play ruling?

“There is only one country that we’re aware of in Asia that has a salary cap in football and that’s Australia. A lot of the countries imposing the federations, the associations are actually imposing what you would describe as financial fair play mechanisms themselves.

“So for example in Japan if a club has more than three years consecutive financial losses they will be penalised and eventually, potentially, the club would be not allowed to participate in the league. So they’re trying to kind of curb the over-expansion financially of all over-stretching clubs financially.

“We’re not at that stage in Hong Kong, I want to see more investment going into the clubs. You know we need more money and we need more people to take a punt and a risk on investing in football rather than the other way around.

“I think the conclusion was that across Asia was such a big difference between countries that the time’s not right to have an international fair play mechanism. At the moment we should just leave it to individual countries and associations to identify what the issues are for them and to put in place mechanisms to do that.

“We will have the club license system any way. So if you want to participate in the AFC Champions League you have to have an AFC Champions League club license and within that there are financial mechanisms which will already kind of make sure make the clubs look at their own internal financial management.”

So what does the future hold for football in Hong Kong?

“Some people share the opinion I have that the best days of Hong Kong Football are ahead of us, but I think most people would probably think the best days of Hong Kong football are behind us.

“Hopefully my my position will be proved right in the future but only time will tell.”

By Joshua Schneider-Weiler

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