The HKFA’s Vision 2025 document has been released. Here’s how it will affect grassroots football.
A year ago, before the global pandemic, the HKFA held a series of public consultations about their new five year plan entitled Vision 2025. The new plan is a successor to Project Phoenix (2011-14) and Aiming High – Together (2015-20).
Alright, so those consultations were actually held in January of this year, but it certainly feels like a year ago, doesn’t it? Since that time, much has changed in Hong Kong.
There’s the pandemic, which has caused the 2019-20 season to be extended into September. The HKFA, themselves, have been at the centre of so much controversy with half a year remaining for them to cause more controversy. The mood in the city has been quite sombre recently, mainly due to the fact that the 2020 Hong Kong Sevens were cancelled.
Due to the aforementioned pandemic, funding for the HKFA’s new five-year plan has yet to be approved. With chairman Pui Kwan-kay and acting CEO Vincent Yuen set to appear before the Panel on Home Affairs on the 13th to argue favour of continued funding, the HKFA finally released the document of their plan.
Here are Offside’s highlights from the plan. You can read the full document here.
The document begins by listing seven strategic goals that the HKFA hopes to achieve, with the five-year plan designed to help the organization eventually achieve those goals in the long term.
At the very top of the list is to reach the 2034 World Cup. During the public consultation sessions, the HKFA appeared to be hedging, stating that they wanted to qualify for either the 2034 or 2038 World Cup. Now, it appears, the HKFA have set their sights for 2034 and that’s that.
The HKFA describes Vision 2025 as a “very ambitious plan” that aims to “add quality to all divisions of football.” They believe that in order to qualify for the 2034 World Cup, one needs to have “good infrastructure” and a “good plan.” The HKFA believes it has both.
We’ll pause so that you can ponder that for a second.
The HKFA believes that in 2034, the squad will consist of players born roughly between 2004 to 2014, meaning that the players will be aged between 20 to 30 at that point. In the intervening time between 2020 to 2034, the HKFA has set milestones for its youth teams to reach.
For context, the U-16’s have only qualified for the AFC U-16 tournament once – in 2014. The team failed to earn a single point or score a single goal and have not qualified since. Of the players named in that squad, only Yu Wai-lim has established himself as a consistent starter in the Premier League.
Football for everyone vs elite selection
Allow us for a minute to take a brief detour from our analysis of Vision 2025.
In August 2017, the HKFA signed a twelve-month partnership agreement with the Football Association of Iceland (KSI) in which the KSI sent experts to Hong Kong in order to transfer some of their knowledge to local coaches. The HKFA would then send their own representatives to Iceland to observe the KSI’s best practices and generate ideas on how to improve Hong Kong football.
The initiative was borne out of the idea that Hong Kong and Iceland are more similar than they are different when it comes to football. Both have a small pool of registered players when compared to their fellow nations in the AFC or UEFA. Both have a limited amount of pitches to work with. Both nations have few professional teams, yet, Iceland had been able to punch above their weight in qualifying for the EURO 2016, which led to interest on the part of the HKFA to strike up a partnership.
To add to the Icelandic flavour in Hong Kong, Thor Árnasson, the former head coach of Iceland’s U-15 boys national team, was hired as the HKFA’s Technical Director in January 2019.
Why is any of this relevant? For starters, we were curious as to how much of Vision 2025 would be influenced by these two events. We wanted to know just how much of Iceland’s philosophy had been absorbed by the HKFA.
In a Telegraph article about the success of Iceland, the author notes that from age six to 19, both boys and girls receive the same treatment in their respective programs. Parents pay an annual fee, subsidized by the local council, and their son or daughter shall receive near unlimited training with no need to pass a try out.
As Icelandic coach Hákon Sverrisson explains in the article, “In Iceland, we never miss a talent” because the country cannot afford to. In a nation of 350,000, every player is crucial.
In the same article, another coach argued vehemently against early selection of players – that is, to select stand out players at an early age for elite development while casting the others away. “I am absolutely against early selection,” the coach said. “You lose players. An early developer will grow the most between 12 and 13; a late developer will grow the most between 15 and 17. The late developer is cut adrift in an early selection system. Talent is lost.”
Who is this mystery coach? Why, he’s none other than Thor Árnasson.
In Vision 2025, the HKFA tries to both conduct early selection and increase the number of youth players. Currently, each age group for boys, from U13 through to U18, has its own leagues which are sponsored by the Hong Kong Jockey Club. District teams, private academies and professional clubs all send their academy teams to participate in the Jockey Club Youth League as it is the only sanctioned youth league in Hong Kong.
The HKFA has proposed to cut back its involvement in training youth players by shutting down its own academy and instead, focus on scouting and identifying the top 240 players at the U10 level. Once those players reach the U11 or U12 age groups, the players will be encouraged to join clubs and academies.
In order to not lose players who weren’t identified early, the HKFA has proposed to create a separate youth league for clubs called the Premier Youth League which will only run U14, U16 and U18 leagues. Players who the HKFA has identified as exceptional talents will likely agree to join an academy run by one of the Premier League clubs. These players, of which there will be 660 in total, will participate in the Premier Youth League whereas players who were not selected will compete for the remaining 3,080 places available in the JCYL.
The key difference between the JCYL and the PYL lies in the training of the players: JCYL teams will only train once a week whereas PYL teams will train three times a week. To accommodate this, the HKFA will give priority booking rights to PYL teams at the Football Training Centre during after school hours as well as possibly offering reduced rates.
Improving youth coaching
One of the two pillars of Iceland’s meteoric rise in world football are investments in coaching and infrastructure. Let’s talk about coaching first.
In Vision 2025, the HKFA pledges to deliver funding to PYL clubs based on their ability to achieve AFC Elite Youth Scheme “one star” or “two star” status. The money will be used to improve the quality of training for youth players by allowing clubs to afford more qualified coaches. The other intention, is of course, to encourage more Hong Kongers to seek higher qualifications.
In Iceland, every UEFA-licensed coach is paid, which incentives more people to take up coaching courses. As the KSI’s head of coaching education Arnar Bill Gunnarsson told Sports Illustrated, “When you start playing football in Iceland…it’s very likely that your coach will have at least a B license – many of them have an A license – and also a PE degree from the university. So, you get a very highly qualified coach from Day 1, and such a quality coach should be able to make the training session fun and interesting and that means the kids learn to love the game.”
As of 2018, there were 669 coaches in the country with a UEFA B license or higher along with 23,000 registered players, meaning a ratio of about 1 B licensed coach for every 34 players. By comparison, as of 2017, there were only 126 coaches in Hong Kong with an AFC B license or higher, along with 280,000 registered players, meaning a ratio of 1:2,222.
Build additional football training centres
The other pillar of Iceland’s rise is the construction of indoor football pitches (football halls) which have allowed the nation’s players to train year round. While there is much logic to building indoor pitches in Hong Kong as well, for now, we’ll settle for outdoor pitches.
In the past, the HKFA has identified the detrimental effects that the lack of pitches have had on player development. “There are too few facilities to cater for the demand”, the organization said in a 2018 report to the Panel on Home Affairs. “Deficiencies in the allocation of pitches exist at all levels…By the time a footballer reaches age 18, he or she will have trained and played around 50% of the time enjoyed by footballers from other countries with a better supply of facilities.”
Although the Jockey Club has assisted in building football training centres in Tseung Kwan O and Shek Mun, both of these training grounds are geographically isolated. To try and solve this problem, the HKFA will seek to negotiate with the government to build similar facilities on Hong Kong Island and in either Northwest Kowloon or the New Territories.
One could argue that training grounds are needed in all three areas listed in the document and not just to make it more convenient for youth players to attend training. Building private training centres would make it easier for professional clubs to find dedicated facilities without having to compete with amateur clubs for public pitches.
Look for Part 2 tomorrow where we discuss the plans for the Premier League, the national team and the women’s youth development pathway.