The government’s stance in the raging debate over the venue of our next World Cup qualifying match against China shows that it is more concerned about things that have nothing to do with football.
Hong Kong will host the game on Nov. 17, after China hosted the last match in Shenzhen earlier this month.
The normal arrangement is to use the 40,000-capacity Hong Kong Stadium as the venue, with the Mong Kok Stadium, which can hold a crowd of 6,800, as the second choice.
The idea is to get the biggest attendance in support of our team in the highly anticipated showdown.
Thanks to the outstanding performance of our boys, the previous three home games were held at Mong Kok Stadium, recording a full house in each occasion.
As such, local football fans expect the next match with China to be held at the Hong Kong Stadium as more fans would want to attend the event, especially after the last game ended in a goalless draw.
Mark Sutcliffe, the chief executive of the Hong Kong Football Association (HKFA), told RTHK that it has already notified FIFA that the next match will be played at the Hong Kong Stadium as early as January.
But it has come to the attention of the football association that the venue will not be available for the World Cup qualifier.
That because the stadium will host rugby matches in early November, which means the pitch may not have sufficient time to recover for the football game.
Fifty-two qualifying matches for the Rugby Sevens tournament at the 2016 Rio Olympics will be played at the Hong Kong Stadium from Nov. 7 to 8.
Cameron Hodgkins, head of sports turf management for the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), said “getting it into a world-class standard of pitch in such a limited time is probably too long a stretch for this pitch”, even though the turf has been re-laid with a hard-wearing type of grass.
Of course, the government can ride on such a professional judgment to refuse the HKFA request to use the stadium for the World Cup qualifier.
But that could trigger another round of public outcry and allegations that the government always has been a spoil sport when it comes to the development of football.
The LCSD is managing the stadium on behalf of the public, but it does not have any priority on the booking arrangement for football matches.
If the “first come first serve” model is adopted, it can be said that the rugby matches should be given priority as they will be held before the football event. But the HKFA has said that it has booked the stadium for the game as early as January.
What is dismaying for many Hong Kong football fans is that both the HKFA and the government have shown neither the sincerity nor the intention to host the game at the Hong Kong Stadium.
They appear to be just looking for an excuse to move the match from the city’s largest sport venue to a tiny pitch commonly reserved for local, community sport events.
What they’re doing now is passing the ball to each other to avoid bearing the responsibility.
At first, the LCSD said the HKFA has the right to use the stadium or not, but the football association did not know that. So the LCSD took it upon itself to make the final decision.
Meanwhile, the HKFA has suggested that the match be held at the Siu Sai Wan Sports Ground in the eastern part of Hong Kong Island.
The venue has a capacity of 12,000, but choosing it for the World Cup qualifier would undermine the importance of the international event, although it dud host a few international matches in the past decades.
The Siu Sai Wan pitch may be more ready for the football match than the Hong Kong Stadium.
But for fans and players alike, Hong Kong Stadium should host the game as it is the traditional theater of Hong Kong football.
The public is speculating that the government is trying its best to avoid using a big venue for the match in order to avoid another embarrassing situation where the home crowd booed the playing the national anthem before the match.
Understandably, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying doesn’t want a repeat of that display of localism, or if it cannot be avoided, better confine it to a smaller sport ground.
But the government should acknowledge that there is a gap between Hong Kong and the mainland, and Hong Kong fans will do everything they can to support the local team, no matter where the match is held.
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