Modernization of soccer in HK needs multipronged approach
Updated: 2015-10-28 09:28
By Sonny Lo(HK Edition)
Development of Hong Kong soccer in recent years has seen gradual changes in soccer behavior along with the game's modernization.
Hong Kong's success in the East Asian Football Championship of 2009 was the turning point. The young team defeated Japan in the final, taking inspiration from fiery coach Kim Pan-gon, who once remarked that the players should "die for Hong Kong". That wonderful victory stimulated the development of a Hong Kong identity among soccer fans.
Regrettably, however, it also led to the emergence of a minority of rowdy local fans with no respect for the national anthem and national flag. This resulted in the Hong Kong Football Association (HKFA) being fined earlier this month by FIFA. Local soccer fans must learn their lesson if they wish to see Hong Kong's team advance to the second round of the 2018 World Cup preliminary.
The HKFA has already appealed to local fans to be on their best behavior at the forthcoming November match between the national and Hong Kong teams. If instead they again show disrespect to the national anthem and flag, the likely consequences would be still heavier penalties for the HKFA plus another "black eye" for our sporting image.
If Hong Kong soccer aims to modernize, fans must cooperate by behaving with civility at all times to achieve a win-win outcome, where our team is not penalized and our image is not tarnished.
The modernization of soccer here has advanced rapidly since the Phoenix program was launched. Nowadays some clubs like Kitchee pay special attention to the training of young players, while the launch of the Hong Kong Premier League has improved the quality of matches and increased the game's attractiveness for former enthusiasts, who are returning to football stadiums in ever-increasing numbers.
Arguably, further modernization of the game needs to encompass several reform areas. Firstly, each of the nine teams of the Premier League should ideally represent two of the 18 districts in Hong Kong. For fans this would enhance the teams' sense of belonging to their respective districts while maximizing the use of existing football pitches there.
Secondly, by "districtizing" the Premier League clubs, each club can mentor young soccer players from secondary schools in their respective district to form reserve teams for the clubs (such as under-18 or under-12), thereby training and grooming new talent. "Districtization" would also increase the sense of belonging among secondary school students, enhancing the popularity of soccer as a mass sport. The soccer pitches of secondary schools could also be fully utilized if the first division and second division teams were categorized into different districts.
Thirdly, if in the long run HKFA can send a team representing Hong Kong to compete in the mainland's Chinese Super League, this would help increase the standard of our players. It is noteworthy that while Hong Kong usually defeated Japan in the 1970s and early 1980s, the introduction of the Japanese professional league in 1993 modernized Japanese soccer in such a rapid way that they mostly turned the tables on us until the East Asian Cup in 2009.
For Hong Kong to modernize its soccer, club management and marketing need to learn from both the mainland and Japan, although it must be conceded that our Premier League has recently begun drawing fans back to the pitches. Hong Kong should also note how in recent years Guangzhou Evergrande has recorded impressive international soccer achievements through the injection of foreign coaches, modern management and marketing, and extensive capital investment even from e-commerce giant Alibaba. Our clubs should learn from the mainland way of modernizing soccer. They should marketize as well as commercialize the soccer industry.
Fourthly, the Hong Kong government should end its laissez-faire policy toward soccer development, and stop leaving the task to the relatively isolated HKFA. A partnership between the HKFA and the government, especially the Home Affairs Department or Leisure and Cultural Services Department, should be re-established. The government should consider helping local soccer development by providing more soccer-related subsidies. In particular, maintenance of the Hong Kong Stadium, which experienced problems concerning the quality of its grass, must be looked into under soccer modernization. While we do have a couple of useful standby pitches like those at Siu Sai Wan and Mong Kok, the lack of another large football stadium in Hong Kong hampers the development of local soccer and the holding of larger international soccer tournaments.
Fifthly, research on soccer development has been lacking in Hong Kong. The government should consider encouraging local universities and academics to conduct more research on sports development, specially soccer, so that modernization of soccer is led by in-depth research findings that can be shared among the stakeholders, including club managers, players, coaches and academics.
Finally, the HKFA should start a fund to ensure the welfare of players so that both active young players and accomplished veterans are assured of career security.
The author is professor and head of the Department of Social Sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education and is a long-time observer of developments in Hong Kong.
(HK Edition 10/28/2015 page10)