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Iceland? Why Not Hong Kong? Voices from Hong Kong Football

With the World Cup in Russia on the horizon and after several years of intensive qualifying competition, all the slots in the finals have been taken. One of the qualifiers includes the tiny nation of Iceland, which in itself is an amazing feat, from a nation of just 335,000 people. A football revolution has taken place in Iceland in the form of improved facilities, a high percentage of qualified coaches per population average and a generation of young players growing up together. So as this little nation, which endures harsh weather for several months, prepares to join the party in Russia, what does it say about the game in Hong Kong which boasts a population of over 7 million people with facilities dotted around.

Iceland’s football transformation (a little like Germany and Belgium) has taken about two decades to bear the fruits of success. In the meantime, Hong Kong has implemented “Project Phoenix” which has sought to transform the local game to a higher level and usher in a new era of professionalism; there is also hope on the horizon with the new Hong Kong football training centre set to open soon in Tseung Kwan O. 

Aside from the professional league in Hong Kong, there are several independent amateur leagues who compete across grass and artificial pitches across Hong Kong.  Several players and coaches, who have played amateur football in Hong Kong, offered their views and opinions on the state of the game in Hong Kong.

Shane Jeffrey, HKFC youth football coach, stressed that simply not enough time was spent for playing football or training.

“I can only comment on my limited experiences within the amateur game and from speaking to people involved in both amateur and semi professional leagues. The biggest challenge in Hong Kong seems to be the general lack of pitch time that is available to players at all levels, not just amateurs and semi-pros. There is no substitute for time spent with the ball at your feet and training with your team. No matter how good the sessions are or how qualified the coaches are, if you’re only training once or twice a week, it will be very difficult to take big steps in players’ personal development. With those circumstances I think it will continue to be very challenging for players to develop outside of being in a professional setting or doing individual training on one’s own time.”

Jeffrey also said the lack of financial resources in the local game also meant that it was hard to motivate and provide incentive to some players.

“In order for the game and the players to develop and to improve, there always needs to be a strong support infrastructure and ultimately this comes down to investment. If Hong Kong recognizes football as a sporting culture and is willing to invest time and financial resources to improve individuals, leagues and the competitiveness, there’s definitely room for improvement, because of the massive interest in football. It has to come from local sources. It’s all well and good for people to appreciate and follow the Premier League, La Liga or UEFA Champions League, but unless supporters can identify with a club side and its players even in amateur or semi-pro levels, it will be hard to incentivise players or clubs to invest more time and resources into developing individuals and a squad that can ultimately compete at a higher level.”

Shane Jeffrey on a coaching course in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Sin Hang Chung is an amateur player wfor many years and commented on the low salaries in Hong Kong for sports people, which contributes to the lack of development in the professional game.

“For Hong Kong, I have heard that the salaries of football players are possibly 20-30K. This would be the few top local players.  Most would be sitting in the 10 to 20K category, I would assume. With the high cost of living in Hong Kong, a football career cannot pay you enough.  One must live not only to play football but to consider everyday life.  Your true football career will possibly last until you are 38, 42 at best. The money you make between 18 and 40 must allow you to possibly retire and still live in Hong Kong.  You want good players to come out, you need to be able to pay for good players. Families in Hong Kong would not encourage their kids to play and aim for a career in football as it is not realistic.  So, to make this work, you must have a professional league in Hong Kong that is willing to pay for players.  People are willing to spend money to watch the games, but the games must come close to a professional level.”

“We have the facilities but we don’t have the incentive to motivate the players to continue and become professionals.  One key point that is worthy of pointing out is that Hong Kong is a city. You create a single Hong Kong team and you will have support of the people. Cities play against cities and thus you get rivalries and support. Intercity teams cannot create the atmosphere needed.”

Shuichi Takamizawa, first row in the middle.

43-year-old Shuichi Takamizawa has been in Hong Kong for 17 years and shared his opinion on the state of the game when compared to his native Japan.

“Compared to facilities in Japan where football is also popular, Hong Kong has very nice artificial pitches all over the city. I always hear some of my Japanese friends say they can’t play football after having being used to the wonderful atmosphere in Hong Kong. However, when it comes to numbers of pitches, I always feel there should more. As Hong Kong is becoming a richer and advanced city, people are becoming more aware of their health. So I feel the government should do more to solve the problem even though land is limited

“There is a lack of sports culture in Hong Kong”

 Takamizawa went on to joke that Hong Kong’s obsession with study was also a roadblock in terms of improving the local game. “Hong Kong needs good coaches. Oh wait, Hong Kong schools need to reduce children’s homework first!”

Adrian Lai, an amateur player born and raised in Australia, but now working in Hong Kong, said a lack of sporting culture held back the development of sports in Hong Kong.

“When compared to other countries, I do not think there really is much in terms of comparison. Amateur football here is not really like in Europe where you have a little football ground with kids playing and teams playing. In terms of professional football in Hong Kong, you cannot attract good players and you cannot raise the standard of the specific league if there are no resources in terms of finance, coaching and football grounds. I do not think Hong Kong is competitive when it comes to football.”

Lai went on to examine why a tiny place like Iceland could qualify for the World Cup but not Hong Kong.

“You have to look at it from where the priorities are for in terms of building the foundation, where the depth of sport in general is. I am not sure about the specifics of Iceland, though when I look around Hong Kong, there is not that much priority placed on sport in general, let alone football. In Europe in general, there is a lot more emphasis placed on a balanced upbringing. You play sport, go to school, etc. I actually read this article on how the Icelandic government offers USD 500 to teens or troubled teens to get off drugs and get on a straight path. The money is used to place them into sports and get them away from anti-social actions. They focus on constructive things, so I guess it is all about priorities.”

Lai also said that the lack of opportunities for children to undertake outdoor activities hinders the lack football development in Hong Kong.

“It is a pretty big anchor to any sort of development in sports, football or otherwise, when you are not even given an opportunity to go out and explore what you could be. You have some kids in Hong Kong who have hardly had the chance to play sport as they are upstairs studying all the time. They are either at school or they are in some tutorial classes and who knows, you could give them a ball to go out. I am not saying that all of them will become footballers, but a good 20 to 30% of them might be.”

Improved and updated facilities in Happy Valley

Edwin Yeung, who manages amateur team Wyndham Hovers, said that there were many different factors at play to why the game at all levels has not developed to how it should.

“There are a lack of training grounds and the “high prices” paid to buy pitches are not supportive as well. There are several training schools which are getting popular these days, but most of them are very commercial. It’s just branded to target white collars group without really giving a fair chance to the whole city.”

There are many amateur and semi-professional teams across Hong Kong

He also stressed how even professional players in Hong Kong could hardly make a living.

“Government support is limited and professional players can hardly make a living. If they play in the Hong Kong Premier League, they have to train most days and are not allowed to take part-time jobs. However they are being paid not enough to even sustain a living.”

“The lack of attention to local sports is also an issue. There is not enough support from the fans nor the government. Once I saw an online commentator that said even if Hong Kong had a player like Messi, he would have been stopped playing football as he probably would have to focus on academics as a child, nor could he sustain a living and hence would be forced to give up if he reaches the age of 18.”

Stephen Pomfret, a former HKFC player and Hong Kong football observer, shared his views on the amateur and semi-professional leagues in Hong Kong.

“The amateur and semi pro leagues are a good place for socializing and having a casual kick about with friends, but the difference in standard of players is so wide that the players with potential are probably held back or don’t have the challenge that they need to improve. There also isn’t really the depth of talent on the coaching side of things. From physical training methods, which is one of the key areas where most players are lacking, to ball skills and tactics.”

Pomfret also commented on the standard of football facilities in Hong Kong.

“There are probably sufficient football facilities relative to the size of the population, but whether or not they are effectively utilized or well-maintained is a whole other question. The preference amongst the working class is to play on concrete pitches and it also used to be the case when I was much younger, that we’d just turn up when we were free and could challenge whoever was playing at the time, while the ‘winners stay on’. But many of the public concrete pitches have come under a booking system, so a lot of casual players could no longer just walk on and have a game, because someone would have a legitimate booking. I think this stunts a bit of the excitement and spontaneity of just playing the game and deters people from getting involved. Most of the people booking the pitches are just having a bit of fun with their friends, but there isn’t much in the way of development.”

“On the grass pitches in Hong Kong, I don’t think I have ever played on one that was not as hard as concrete, undulating, muddy or patchy. The only flat grass pitch I ever played on with pristine grass was at the Kowloon Cricket Club, that really says it all. And I’ve pretty much played at all the so called quality pitches from Hong Kong Sports Institute to Mong Kok Stadium to South China Stadium to Hong Kong Stadium. It is very difficult to develop world class skills on such poor surfaces.”

Pomfret also discussed the mindset of the city towards sports and the lack of role models in this respect.

“This is a very tough question, because it is endemic amongst most families in Hong Kong that sports are a leisure activity and time should not be wasted in their pursuit. One should be spending their time learning other skills that will make more money. This leads to a lot of potentially great players taking a different career path such accountants, lawyers, doctors, engineers, so the talent pool is greatly diminished. I guess the answer to the question is how to change the mindset amongst the general Hong Kongers, which I honestly don’t know the answer to. Its simply not enough to throw money at the problem, there needs to be a whole new structure in place from the ground up, whereby children at schools are encouraged to participate in sports with teachers who have at least a general level of training and knowledge. These children also need role models to look up to and who they aspire to follow in their footsteps, not just stars from the English Premier League who are a world away and seemingly out of reach. Which means there needs to be a re-imagining of the professional game in Hong Kong and getting fans excited and involved from youth.”

Finally, he mentioned that there was no reason Hong Kong could not qualify for a World Cup if Iceland could do it.

“There shouldn’t be any reason why Hong Kong can’t do it, its just changing the mindset of the people and having the will and the motivation, although genetically Iceland does have the advantage of being descendants  from the Vikings…”

Hong Kong, in itself, does not have a fully developed sports culture and this is reflected in the low attendances for the Premier League games. Many have offered solutions and suggestions on how to improve the overall quality of game, both at the amateur and professional levels, though it will be interesting to see the progress as the years pass.

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