Firstly I would like to acknowledge that the results of the Hong Kong U22 team in the recent Olympic qualifying tournament were disappointing; there is no doubt about that. Coach KIM to his credit has already apologized for the performance.
I have met with KIM today and asked for a detailed report on the competition by the end of next week. I will review the situation once I am in possession of all the facts. I will reserve some judgement on the Olympic qualifiers until I have had chance to digest the detailed report but I would like to make some initial observations.
The Coach and some of the players have mentioned that the lack of a training camp was a contributory factor in the poor performance and this seems to have been picked up by the media. I am not dismissing this completely because I appreciate the need for teams to bond and to play together to develop an understanding on the pitch. My view however is that this is more of an excuse than a reason. If anyone thinks that simply getting the team together for a few days would make the difference between losing three games and winning them, then they are just deluding themselves. If only it was that easy to solve. Unfortunately there are some more fundamental problems to address.
Before I describe these problems, I would like to address the question of money. Let’s be clear, funding was not the main reason why there was no overseas training camp. In recent years the money spent by the Technical Department on representative team training and competition has increased dramatically and quite rightly so. Next year it is set to increase even further. This year has been extraordinarily busy for our representative teams in that there has been an Asian Games, the East Asian Games and other tournaments, competitions and one off matches. This has coincided with the start of the Premier League. The start of the season was delayed and there have been other gaps in fixtures created by the representative team matches. Many of these have been outside the FIFA International match days. There is a limit as to how often the HKFA can stop the league whilst being fair to the clubs and maintaining the integrity and public interest in the League. The issue was not about money but about the availability of players. The HKFA has to balance often conflicting objectives and reach compromises. These are not always understood by everyone especially if they are coming from one perspective without the benefit of seeing the whole picture.
So what are these more fundamental issues.
Firstly anyone who knows anything about football knows that it takes at least 10 years to train somebody to be good enough to play international football. The individuals playing in this tournament were mostly born in 1993. The period of time most critical to their development was arguably when they were between 10 and 20 i.e. 2003 to 2013. I wasn’t here then but I understand from talking to people who were, that there was very little football development at that time. Basically the system failed this cohort of players and I attach no blame to the players whatsoever. They are passionate about football and try their best whenever they play for Hong Kong. The point is that the lack of systematic coaching, training and competitive opportunity during their formative years has left them significantly behind players from other countries in terms of technique, physicality and tactical awareness. It is impossible to make up that gap overnight. As someone who has been involved in sports development for 35 years, believe me, no overseas training camp is going to overcome these long term deficiencies.
Another factor that needs to be considered is how frequently and intensely this group of players train and play now. Young local players in Hong Kong do not play often enough for their clubs or train as intensely as they should. Most Premier League Clubs have their full quota of foreign players (6 in the squad, 4 on the pitch at any one time). In addition to that many clubs have players deemed to be local because they have a permanent ID card but they are not eligible to play for Hong Kong because they don’t have a Hong Kong passport. So there are actually very few eligible players playing in the Premier League, very few of them are under 23 and very few play in key positions. The HKRT coaches actually have a limited pool of players to pick from. Couple that to the fact that some (not all) clubs are reluctant to release players for regular training (or overseas camps), then the results are less surprising.
It must also be remembered that the facilities and support for elite football in Hong Kong remain inadequate in terms of both quality and quantity. It is more important than ever that we get a dedicated Training Centre and access to expert Sports Science support.
In summary, I would accept that if we had had the resources and the players available to attend a training camp, it would have helped. However, I do not accept that it would have made a significant difference to the outcome. There are much more basic fundamental problems to resolve. In the new Strategic Plan, Aiming High – Together, (a copy of which is on the website) I set out potential solutions to these issues including (but not limited to):
- building a training centre
- developing a football curriculum
- introducing a more systematic development continuum with pathways for talented players
- establishing regional centres of excellence
- helping clubs to develop their own Academies
- providing better sports science and medical support to elite players
- providing player welfare and second career opportunities
- entering a U22/23 team in the Premier League
There are so many things we should be doing better but it takes time to change things and put new people and systems in place. I understand that people want immediate results. I understand that people with a limited knowledge of football expect Project Phoenix to have solved these issues at a stroke. Expectations need to be managed because Hong Kong football has failed a generation of players and it cannot be solved overnight. We need to find additional resources to help us to implement the plans we now have in place. In time things will improve. In the meantime we need to be patient and give our full support to the players and coaches as they do their best to represent Hong Kong with pride.
Everyone is disappointed that we failed to qualify, not least the players and coaches. Equally everyone at the HKFA is committed to making things better.
Mark Sutcliffe April 2015