If the state of local football doesn’t improve, the Pegasus boss says next season could be his last.
Steven Lo has been at this a long time. He was at the helm Hong Kong’s biggest club for ten years and witnessed, first hand, the highs and lows of local football over his many decades in the game.
But now, the 61-year-old businessman says that he’s seen enough. A frequent critic of the Hong Kong Football Association, the Pegasus chairman once detailed a list of recommended reforms to the organization, only to be rebuffed and accused of orchestrating a coup.
In an interview published on Monday by Headline Daily, Lo says that he’s approaching the 2020-21 as his last. If local football does not show signs of improvement, he says, then he vows to walk away for good.
“If I were an HKFA staffer, even I wouldn’t take my job seriously!”
In April, the Audit Commission published a scathing report on the HKFA, detailing the lack of oversight and proper adherence of procedure by the organization. As the HKFA were seeking a renewal of their annual $25 million subvention from the government, representatives from the organization were called to testify on three occasions before the Public Accounts Committee of LegCo to answer the criticisms listed in the report.
Lo claims that he watched the webcasts of all three meetings with keen interest and agreed with many of the criticisms raised by LegCo members. “Some people regard the Presidency of the HKFA as an honorary position,” he said. “Sometimes, the board meetings end right when they begin because the Presidency is an unpaid position. The President doesn’t have to do any homework, which means there’s no point in having the meeting in the first place.
“Meetings which used to be held on a monthly basis are now held on a bi-monthly basis. The meetings are limited to three hours and even if there are still items on the agenda that haven’t been discussed, the (board of directors) will still call it a day. If I were an HKFA staffer, even I wouldn’t take my job seriously in this environment!”
The Pegasus chairman held nothing back when he made his feelings known about the directors of the HKFA. He described the directors as “underqualified” amateurs who are holding back the development of local football.
“I dare say, some of the directors haven’t watched a single match in years and I worry that they don’t even know what the offside rule is,” he joked, before turning his attention to fellow East Asian nations. “A lot of the higher ups at the Japanese and Korean Football Associations have either coached or played the game. Even the directors at the Hong Kong Jockey Club are all horse racing enthusiats. They’ll all attend at least one race a month.”
For all of his criticisms of the HKFA, Lo argues that he has tried to propose solutions. He once suggested that the directorship of the HKFA be divided into one class of honorary directors who would be figure heads and another class who would be responsible for administrative decisions, but this suggestion was dismissed.
Lo also claims that he was the first to discover irregularities in the hiring of former Elite Development Coach Sam Bensley, allegations which were brought to light in late May. Although he had contacted the HKFA about his concerns near the end of 2019, Lo claims the organization neither responded to him nor followed up on his concerns.
“After we won gold in 2009, I thought for sure local football would get better and better. Who could’ve known that was when it peaked?”
Lo has a lifetime of experience in the business world. At 30 years old, he became the manager of a bank and currently owns a number of restaurants and bars in Hong Kong including Red MR and Cosmos. He will be the first to admit, on the other hand, that running a football club is a hobby and not a profitable enterprise for him.
“In 1992, I became of the chief backer of South China because back in those days, the owners got to sit in the VIP seats at the Government Stadium and look out onto a stadium full of fans,” Lo recalled fondly. But the chairman conceded that he was out of his depth and gave up the reigns after three years.
It was not until he regained control of the club in 2006 that he began to educate himself on how to properly run a football club, which enabled him to run South China like a business. The Caroliners, who had finished bottom in the 2005-06 season, required an exemption from the HKFA to stay up in the First Division. Over the ensuing offseason, Lo rebuilt the squad and South China would go onto to win the treble during the 2006-07 season.
In 2009, Hong Kong defeated Japan on penalties in the gold medal match of the East Asian Games. In the aftermath of the victory, the government commissioned a consultancy report on the state of local football, which has culminated in the investment of over a hundred million dollars of public money to improve the local game. However, Project Phoenix and Aiming Higher – the two five-year plans submitted by the HKFA since 2010 – have thus far failed to deliver on their promises, and it can be argued that local football is no better off today than it was a decade ago.
“After we won gold in 2009, I thought for sure local football would get better and better,” remarked Lo. “Who could’ve known that was when it peaked?”
“If, by the end of next season, upper management at the HKFA’s has not changed…and the standard of the game continues to fall, then I’m walking away for good.”
Looking ahead, Lo promises that next season for Pegasus will be very different. In fact, it could even be his last.
The chairman hinted at this recently when he was asked by reporters to explain his support for increasing the foreign quota. “We have to do something to stimulate the local scene otherwise, we’re going to be playing every game in front of 300-500 people,” he said. “We sent a letter to the HKFA about a month or two ago explaining to them that our outlay is quite substantial, and if the matches aren’t entertaining, and we can only attract several hundred people a game to turn up, then we’re going to have to think hard about whether we want to keep doing this.”
In the Headline interview, Lo stated that he had considered leaving Pegasus at the end of this season but decided to give it another try. “I told myself: If I stay, I’m only going to give myself one more year,” he resolved. “If, by the end of next season, upper management at the HKFA has not changed, the matches aren’t more entertaining and the standard of the game continues to fall, then I’m walking away for good.”
To that end, Lo promises that he will not go away quietly. “There will be some new blood at Pegasus and there will be some promotional surprises for local fans,” he promised. “Even if we don’t win a trophy next season, everything will have been done differently than in the past.”
The chairman recalled that during his time at South China, he signed big name players such as Nicky Butt and Mateja Kežman. The club were able to attract Italian fashion house Armani as a sponsor, which led to an infamous team photo where the 2011-12 squad posed in suits. Although these events took place almost a decade ago, he claims that his ambition is no smaller than it was at South China but that now, his goal is to return local football to the forefront of public consciousness.
In taking his last stand, Lo hopes to give back to the game loves and give one final gift to the Hong Kong people.
“Society is terribly divided right now but football can be a unifying force. It is the most popular sport in the city. So I’ve told all of my staff who work in the football department to pitch in with their ideas. Let’s bring people together, regardless of political affiliation, regardless of background and let’s support local football!”