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Pitch battle: HKFA chief Mark Sutcliffe says fans made up for poor pitch

Mark's Photo HOMEPAGEIn the second of a series of interviews about this year’s Barclays Asia Trophy, SportAsia talks to Hong Kong Football Association CEO MARK SUTCLIFFE about the city’s many benefits as a host venue despite the Hong Kong Stadium pitch’s inability to withstand torrential rain.


By SportAsia


What are your overall thoughts on this year’s Barclays Asia Trophy in Hong Kong, especially in light of the poor performance of the Hong Kong Stadium pitch?

In general, I thought the event was a success. Ticket sales were excellent, reflecting the huge interest in Hong Kong for quality football and the English Premier League. There was a palpable ‘buzz’ around Hong Kong in the run-up to the tournament with massive interest that was manifested in many ways during the tournament itself. There were big crowds turning up at the airport to greet the teams and waiting for them outside hotels.


In view of the problems with the pitch, I thought the quality of the matches was fantastic. The teams took the competition seriously and there was some great and entertaining football played. The fact that such good football was on show on such a poor playing surface really demonstrated the world-class standard of the teams and the players. I was in awe of the skill and precision, and have no idea how it’s possible to control and pass a ball on a surface like that.


The weather was a bitter disappointment and although not unexpected at that time of year in Hong Kong, it did impact on the spectator enjoyment to a degree. The incessant rain compounded pre-existing problems with the pitch and almost made it unplayable. The fact that the matches went ahead was testament to the many volunteers that came to help and to the referees who made the brave decision to go ahead. I’m grateful to them. I’m also grateful to the local fans who came out in force to enjoy the tournament and create a fantastic atmosphere. The passion for football here is what motivates me to do what I can to improve football in Hong Kong.

Tottenham Hotspur fans get behind their team at this year’s Barclays Asia Trophy in Hong Kong. Photo: HKFA.

Tottenham Hotspur fans get behind their team at this year’s Barclays Asia Trophy in Hong Kong. Photo: HKFA.

Do you think the state of the pitch and its inability to cope with a heavy downpour – common in a Hong Kong summer – have threatened Hong Kong’s chances of hosting the Barclays Asia Trophy in the future?

Hong Kong has hosted the tournament three times already and the Premier League’s stated aim is to tour the event around the Asia region. Therefore, it’s unlikely it would have come back here in 2015 in any case. The downpour was only part of the problem with the pitch and the honest answer to the question is that we need to be able to guarantee that the longer-term problem with the pitch will be sorted so that in future it will be better equipped to cope with inclement weather. If we can do that, I believe they will consider Hong Kong again. After all, it rains in other countries, too. It’s about on-going maintenance, responsiveness and contingency planning.


How would you describe the line-up of teams for the 2013 event, which has been described as the best so far, due to the presence two top-five teams?

The line-up was sensational. Manchester City are recent champions of the best league in the world. It doesn’t get any better than that. Tottenham are recognised as one of the teams to watch with some of the best players in the world. Sunderland, although they struggled in the Premier League last season, have a charismatic new manager and some very gifted players. The intrigue with the teams’ new managers helped to heighten the interest.


The quality shone through and, for example, Edin Dzeko’s wonder strike in the final would have graced any ground. Although it went largely unnoticed, a save made by Brad Friedel was one of the best I’ve ever seen and I’ve been watching football for over 40 years.

South China (red) tackled Tottenham Hotspur in the third place playoff. Photo: HKFA.

South China (red) tackled Tottenham Hotspur in the third place playoff. Photo: HKFA.

All three teams have superb pedigrees, worldwide support and have been stalwarts of the English game almost since its inception. There can’t have been many places this year with such a wealth of talent on show. Two days later we had Manchester United here, too. In six days we had four Premier League Clubs in Hong Kong including the last two champions. It’s amazing when you think about it.


What was the feedback from each of the teams?

The teams were very positive, despite their concerns about the pitch. They love coming to Hong Kong and they know they have great support here. The format of the competition is a good pre-season exercise for them and not just a ‘showcase’. Obviously Hong Kong also offers them great commercial opportunities. I know they would all like to come here again.


In what other ways is Hong Kong a good venue for the tournament?

Hong Kong offers the Premier League many things including excellent ticket sales, loyal and passionate fans and a gateway to other lucrative markets. The commercial opportunities in Hong Kong as far as broadcasting, sponsorship and advertising are all outstanding for an event on this scale. The Premier League finds it a relatively easy place to do business because the cultural and language barriers are not as great as in other Asian countries.


The HKFA has experience of managing these sorts of events as well as a track record of working successfully with the Premier League. The relationship is very strong and in many ways Hong Kong is seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’, putting aside the problems of the pitch! The historical connections and heritage effect should also not be forgotten. Hong Kong fans have an affinity with English football and vice-versa.


Hong Kong is also very accessible, with good travel connections, great hotels, easy entry requirements and so forth. Let’s not forget that the players, coaches and organisers like to come here, too. There’s good shopping, interesting places to visit and entertaining nightlife. Hong Kong is a spectacular place that people want to visit.


What challenges does Hong Kong face in terms of hosting future tournaments?

Hong Kong has many advantages, as we’ve discussed, but the main challenge is that the Premier League want to spread the tournament around Asia. It was here in 2011 and 2013, so the chances of getting it back here next time are slim.


Another disadvantage is that the current Hong Kong Stadium, while iconic, is ageing and in many respects below the standard expected by Premier League teams. The value for money of the stadium is not great and other Asian countries are investing heavily in their sporting infrastructure. If it’s not careful, Hong Kong could lose its pre-eminent position as ‘Asia’s Sports City’. Investment and a strategic approach to promotion are required now.


How did this tournament benefit the HKFA, such as in refereeing courses, coaching courses and engagement with local teams and supporters?

One of the main benefits for the HKFA is the Premier Skills and Creating Chances programme organised as part of the event in conjunction with the British Council. Aspiring players from disadvantaged backgrounds, coaches and referees all received intensive training and coaching from Premier League and club staff. I know from speaking to the participants how inspiring and motivational this was for them. We also organised an international Refereeing Symposium led by the Premier League Referees and Referees Manager, Mike Riley.

Referee education was among many Premier League activities conducted around the Barclays Asia Trophy. Photo: Premier League.

Referee education was among many Premier League activities conducted around the Barclays Asia Trophy. Photo: Premier League.

The Premier League also ran a series of workshops for our First Division clubs and the HKFA staff on subjects ranging from youth development, league management, marketing, communications, media and more. These knowledge transfer sessions will benefit those that attended by increasing the local capacity in these key areas.


I’m sure the Hong Kong players from South China benefited enormously from playing against the Premier league players. Hopefully the training sessions and matches will have inspired a few locals to get involved in football either as players, referees, coaches, administrators or spectators.


The generosity of the Premier League is matched by their professionalism and desire to help. I’m not surprised they’re so successful at everything they do. The Premier League team that I met were dedicated, humble and efficient. They went out of their way to make sure that Hong Kong benefited from their visit and there’s no way the Barclays Asia Trophy is merely a PR or commercial venture. That’s why I was so disappointed with the weather and the pitch. So many people put in so much effort to make this the best Barclays Asia Trophy ever – and we nearly made it.


Aside from the four matches, how else did the Barclays Asia Trophy leave a legacy in Hong Kong and what else can be done to maximise the tournament’s impact on local football?

The Premier League provides a legacy ‘good causes’ fund, which the HKFA will use to extend the Premier Skills courses to two more stages and to promote other areas of the sport. We intend to spend most of the good causes money on promoting refereeing and women’s football.


We intend to build on the success of the event and the increased interest in football by getting people more involved in football at all levels and by retaining them in the sport for longer. More people playing, more often at a higher level is our motto.


Ironically, the one negative aspect of the event, the poor pitch, could leave the most positive legacy by finally highlighting the problems with pitch maintenance and ensuring that long-term solutions are found and put in place. Let’s hope so.

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