Category Archives: Grassroots development

Watch and Learn: A Day out at the Hong Kong Homeless World Cup Fundraiser

In the era of the Premier League, the Champions League, the World Cup and live television broadcasts, it’s easy to forget what football really means to those of us in Hong Kong.

There’s no shame in that. No one here really roots for China in international football—politics aside, China is as far from a footballing powerhouse as it can be, and its national football team is more likely to be an almighty embarrassment than any source of pride—and Hong Kong football just can’t compete on an international level.

That the Hong Kong Football Association is constantly trying to find ways to drum up interest in the Hong Kong Premier League despite such fanatical following of European football week in, week out, is a damning reflection of the dominance of imported football content over “real” football.

So to spend a couple of hours at the fundraising tournament for Hong Kong to send a team to the 2014 Homeless World Cup in Chile, hosted at the MacPherson Stadium in Mong Kok, was a welcome break and a reminder of the place football can, and does, have in our lives.

The ubiquity of European football—the Premier League is the king of all leagues, due to the massive influence that Britain had over Hong Kong culture and daily life during its occupation until 1997—and footballing superstars have over football fans here is always interesting and mildly amusing.

There aren’t many structured youth football programs here, probably because the fierce academic competition and rigorous education system here lends parents to send their kids off to after-school tutoring and other resume-strengthening activities rather than ferrying them to football training. So instead of any dribbling drills or passing practice, kids are out practicing free kicks and long shots in their own attempts to replicate what they see on their TV screens.

So instead of any natural interest in pickup football on the streets leading to a fanatical following of TV football, it’s actually the other way round: It’s what we see on TV that compels us to play.

Small wonder, then, that any game on the public concrete and asphalt fields usually features frequent breaks in play and generally peters out in intensity after 30 minutes: There’s no stamina or physical strength underneath the flashy tricks and occasional golazo attempts.

I myself am guilty—a frequently-used, self-deprecating yet depressingly true description is that I’m a Steven Gerrard who plays with the intensity of Dimitar Berbatov. That in itself—the yearn to score blockbusters and take set pieces but not willing to do the dog work on the pitch (or, more accurately, not willing to put in the effort to gain the stamina to do so)—is more or less indicative of the general “attachment” to football here.

Hong Kong commits itself to watching imported football rather than actually playing it.

It was both slightly amusing and mildly vindicating to find out that one of Hong Kong’s most well-known and well-regarded Cantonese football commentators, Mr. Lee Tak-nang, was not only present at the event as an emcee of sorts, but that he was the vice-chairman of the Homeless World Cup Hong Kong organizing committee. (He decided to turn up in a Brazil jersey.)

But it was the presence of another famous football name in town, and a revelation from a photographer that really hit home.

Detinho, one of the best players to play in Hong Kong in recent years—he signed for famous local club South China aged 33, proceeded to score 52 goals in 56 league games over three years, and is still going strong for Citizen—was a spectator. According to the photographer, who was also one of the organizers, “even Detinho needs to start looking for a job.”

Detinho, a household name in Hong Kong football
Detinho, a household name in Hong Kong football

 

Unlike the stars we see on TV, who boast flashy lifestyles and command weekly wages that are enough to make most people’s eyes water—even the wages of an average Premier League footballer, if managed right, mean that he can retire with financial comfort—here was Detinho, a local star by all accounts, needing to “start looking for a job.”

What about the others?

“Well, the goalkeeper is a compulsive gambler who just likes playing football.” The goalkeeper in question, of course, is the starting goalkeeper of the Hong Kong representative team that will travel to Chile for the Homeless World Cup. He’s a gambling addict, a “problematic” member of society.

Founded by Mel Young from Scotland and Harald Schmied from Austria, the Homeless World Cup had its inaugural tournament in Graz, Austria in 2003, after the idea came about at a Cape Town conference on homelessness. Hong Kong first sent its own team two years later, courtesy of the fundraising and coordination efforts of the Society of Community Organization and Wofoo Social Enterprises of Hong Kong.

The 2005 tournament saw Hong Kong send its first ever representative team to Edinburgh, after they managed to raise about HKD240,000 in funding, according to the official Homeless World Cup website. They finished 21st out of 27—just about in line with their professional counterparts.

It was evident that both the organization and the cause have come a long way: A total of 24 teams, including those from such companies as A.S. Watson Group, Konica Minolta and Bubble Yum, paid HKD15,000 each to enter the fundraising tournament on Saturday.

Many of the post-match write-ups about the fundraising event focused on Sunday instead—the event took place over the weekend at the same venue. Sunday was the more newsworthy date: Members of the Legislative Council, as well as a few celebrities, took part in an exhibition match, with controversial politician “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung featuring as one of the players. Carrie Lam, the Chief Secretary for Administration of the Hong Kong Government, gave a keynote speech highlighting the impact of homelessness in society.

But that very occurrence belied the fact that homelessness was the issue at the crux of the event, for the media and the celebrities—barring Detinho and Mr. Lee—didn’t show up on Saturday, which was when the real action took place.

Saturday was when the teams that actually paid a large sum of money took to the concrete fields and played 4-a-side. Saturday was when those 24 teams each had their own supporters—coworkers, friends et al—cheering them on the pitch, occasionally complaining and cursing (as football fans are wont to do).

It was only on Sunday when, after the qualifying rounds on Saturday, the Hong Kong representative team actually won the fundraising tournament, the first time in the fundraiser’s 10-year history.

(Edit: My original piece had Sunday down as only a “celebrity” exhibition match. I’ve since had it clarified that Sunday was the final that saw the Hong Kong team win.)

 

The Hong Kong representative team warms up on the side of the mini pitches.
The Hong Kong representative team warms up on the side of the mini pitches.

Turns out you don’t actually have to be homeless to play on a Homeless World Cup team.

I was told at the event by a few members of the organizing team, as well as a new friend who had introduced me to the event and to members of the team, that “they can’t really pick actual homeless people, just to ensure that the team does decently at the tournament.”

This was where the subsequent coverage of the fundraiser in Hong Kong and the official Homeless World Cup website seem to differ slightly: A Wall Street Journal report said that participants qualified by having been homeless at some point in the last five years, while the official tournament website seems to emphasize the “homelessness” of participating players.

 

(Edit: I’ve since had it clarified with the Homeless World Cup organizers that participating players must meet one of the following criteria:
– Have been homeless at some point after September 1, 2009, in accordance with the national definition of homelessness;
– Make their main living income as a street paper vendor;
– Asylum seekers currently without positive asylum status or who were previously asylum seekers but obtained residency status after September 1, 2009 (only two members of a team may have non-national passports; all other players must have a national passport of the nation they represent);
– Currently in drug or alcohol rehabilitation and also have been homeless at some point in the past two years

So while teams might not pick players who are currently homeless, all players on the Hong Kong team meet at least one of the above criteria. This expansion in the eligibility requirements is down to the interpretation that homelessness is the result of other vices like alcohol and drug abuse, and not the cause.)

 

In hindsight, choosing to go on the Saturday turned out to be the right decision. I didn’t return for the higher-profile Sunday, but in a strange way the lesser attention and commotion on site on Saturday meant that the focus was solely on the football and on the cause that the entire tournament supported.

For a fundraising event for a charity tournament abroad, you’d think fashion and design would be one of the lowest priorities on the day. Yet taking center stage, sandwiched right between the two mini pitches, was a row of mannequins dressed in the Hong Kong team jerseys of years past—perhaps to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Hong Kong representative team.

 

Mannequins modeling Hong Kong team jerseys for previous tournaments
Mannequins modeling Hong Kong team jerseys for previous tournaments

 

After an hour or two onsite, I started to make my way back to the bustling streets of Mong Kok and head off to my next destination via the subway. Next door to MacPherson Stadium is a favorite hangout of local youths, where street dancers, band performances and middle-aged ladies dressed in bizarre costumes singing karaoke on the sidewalk share a pedestrian-only walkway.

Right at the end of the street, there were two teenagers just beginning a football freestyle routine, complete with catchy electronic background music. I saw people come and go without much interest. It was the least-noticed and least-observed performance of the entire street.

After 15 minutes, I had to get going. The skills on the street were all well and good, but the first game of the new Premier League was kicking off in a couple of hours. I had to eat first before I could sit down and watch my football.

Manchester City: Building a Global Football Empire from the Etihad Stadium

The rise of Manchester City Football Club in recent years has been nothing short of astonishing, and since Sheikh Mansour and the current ownership team took over, they have gone from strength to strength, establishing themselves as a Premier League powerhouse.

Manuel Pellegrini’s impressive setup at the Etihad Stadium had—for a good few months—his City team the runaway top scorers in England, which are currently looking to secure a domestic double with the League Cup already in their hands.

From the outside, City seems like the archetypal sugar-daddy story: After all, didn’t Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and now AS Monaco go down the same path of sudden fame, fortune and success because of mega-rich owners?

That City’s newfound prestige—and that their starting XI boasts the likes of Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero—is down to the money injected into the club by their Abu Dhabi owners is undeniable, and in some quarters perhaps spoken of negatively and cynically.

But a quick look at their off-field projects, initiatives and business developments suggests City aren’t just in this for the short term, and they’re not just around to pick up a few trophies.

Manchester City mean business, and they’re well on their way to building a global footballing empire.

Michael Regan/Getty Images

Building a City around their fans

From their well-known support of the club even during their lowly third-tier days to their fanatical celebration of a first-ever Premier League title after a 44-year drought, Manchester City fans have long been famous for their undying support.

So it was only right for any City management to focus on their fans—and to their credit, this is exactly what they’ve done.

As fan engagement started to go digital and social media started to take off, City were one of the first clubs to fully embrace these new channels, and as such became one of the pioneers in this arena among the football industry. (Michael da Silva of Alpha Magazine has more in this excellent write-up.)

Along the way, they’ve picked up their fair share of accolades, and for good reason.

Besides their long-admired Twitter channel, they have also become known for offering one of the most comprehensive YouTube librariesin all of football: Their “Inside City” and “Tunnel Cam” series are a rare breath of fresh air in an industry where much of the behind-the-scenes content remain proprietary and available only on paid subscriptions.

By putting their fans in the center of an all-inclusive, fun and interactive social media strategy, Manchester City have hit the jackpot—and their success has encouraged them to strike up innovative and interesting partnerships to take such marketing and fan engagement methods to the next level.

Take their collaboration with GoPro—known for their work with Red Bull Stratos and Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking free fall from the edge of space—last year, for example.

Announced in August 2013, the GoPro tie-up was a groundbreaking look into “what it’s like to train and play like a professional footballer.” A slight exaggeration, perhaps, given that players wouldn’t have worn the cameras during competitive games—but their viewer numbers of more than two million to date have more than paid off.

Prior to that, their May 2013 partnership with Cisco and O2 turned the Etihad Stadium into the “Premier League’s most technologically fan-friendly stadium,” allowing fans to fully immerse themselves into the digital world while watching a live match unfold before them.

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Transforming the City of Manchester

The City of Manchester means a lot to the football club in two different ways.

The first is obvious: Their landmark deal in 2011 with Etihad Airways, which, according to Daniel Taylor of the Guardian, was worth awhopping £400 million, renamed the City of Manchester Stadium to the Etihad Stadium it is known as now.

It was also the largest sponsorship deal in sports at the time and showed the financial powerhouse that Manchester City Football Club were becoming—and the raw commercial potential they had in abundance.

But while the sponsorship arrangement was momentous, arguably more important was what the owners and related stakeholders had in mind for the city of Manchester itself.

The £400 million partnership had significant funds earmarked for the continued development of the Etihad Campus, an area of land around the stadium including a fans’ village and other training facilities. When they put pen to paper on the landmark deal, the landscape and the immediate vicinity was instantly changed.

Two-and-a-half years since he announced the deal, Taylor revisited the topic and wrote more extensively on the “changing football landscape” in Manchester this February (via the Guardian).

With the Etihad Campus due to start its operations within six months and the redeveloped area to include “16 other pitches, accommodation for players, apartments for relatives, a medical center, a boardman, a media theater,” this is truly the beginning of an exciting new era at Manchester City. (The Telegraph have more on the training facility plans here.)

In conjunction with this is the vision at the boardroom level, where Mansour set out a model to incorporate a sustainable future in his plans for the club, which led him to the long-awaited appointment of Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, both instrumental to Barcelona’s dynasty under Pep Guardiola.

The Barcelona blueprint was instrumental and central to Manchester City’s own footballing approach, according to Sid Lowe of the Guardian, and has begun to work its magic. As reported by the Independent, Patrick Vieira, the ex-Arsenal legend, was chosen last summer to move from his position as football development executive to head up City’s new elite development squad, who have been flying high in the under-21 Premier League this season.

Ray Stubblebine/Associated Press

Cities abroad: A global empire

As Manchester City’s youth players go through a one-club development philosophy and prepare to graduate to first-team level, City’s groundwork has been laid at the local level. Prepare to arm Manuel Pellegrini with a squad that can compete at the top of the European game in the coming years.

Whenever it comes to empire building, the next logical step after sorting out the local setup is to look global.

And City first hit the headlines for their worldwide ambitions with their foray into the United States’ Major League Soccer, joining up with Major League Baseball team, the New York Yankees, to establish New York City FC as MLS’s 20th franchise, as confirmed via SI.com.

Besides forming a fresh new local rivalry with the New York Red Bulls, New York City FC will also be commissioning a brand new football-specific stadium in the Bronx area, according to the Guardian, while also boasting the highly rated American coach Jason Kreis as their first manager.

They weren’t content with moving to just one continent, either, and in January this year, City confirmed, via the Guardian, they would be dipping their feet into the Australian market with their acquisition of A-League side Melbourne Heart.

These two acquisitions and expansions have been branded as “strategic” investments in two of the fastest-growing football nations: City will have had one eye on their revenue streams and profit margins when they decided to move ahead with these bold ventures.

But just as they’ve done at home, City also have a one-of-a-kind opportunity waiting in front of them, the kind of opportunity that will only present itself to those with the resources and long-term vision to make it happen.

If Mansour and his management team continue their good work in the city of Manchester and decide to invest in boosting the footballing infrastructures in both New York and Melbourne, not only will they develop their new football clubs, but they might also have a defining say in the footballing growth of the US and Australia.

The potential and the possibilities of a Manchester City football empire are as tantalizing as they are awe-inspiring.

They’ve already gone back to their roots: In a classic fan-centric move, New York City FC have released two winning designs for their club badge and put them up for a public vote among their fans.

We can’t wait to see what’s next.

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League, and occasionally on football business.

English Football Weekly: Week 9 Recap; Fergie’s Book; Grassroots Football

EPL Week 9 Recap: Suarez’s Hattrick, Torres’ Revival, Hart’s Blunder

Player of the weekend? Luis Suarez, without a doubt. Liverpool faced a West Brom team in good form and who had won their last three fixtures against the Reds, expecting a rough ride, but their “flipped midfield triangle” (in Rodgers jargon) worked a treat against the visitors. And with a trademark nutmeg and finish, a header Andy Carroll would’ve been proud of, and a predatory finish from a precise Steven Gerrard free kick, Suarez delivered a striker’s masterclass at Anfield on Saturday to blow the Baggies away. Daniel Sturridge’s fourth wasn’t too shabby either.

The original Liverpool striking hero is doing pretty well too. Fernando Torres has upped his game at Chelsea this season under strong competition from Samuel Eto’o (but not Demba Ba) and continued his resurgence with an all-action display against Manchester City. Sure, he delivered a now-trademark close-range miss, but he made up for it with an excellent turn of pace and strength to dispose of Gael Clichy to set up Andre Schurrle’s goal, and capitalized on City’s defensive mix-up to continue Jose Mourinho’s excellent record at Stamford Bridge.

But we also need to talk about Joe Hart. Wasn’t it just a couple of years ago that he was earmarked as the next best keeper in the world? It’s been an alarming drop in form in the past year or so, but never with as big an implication as now. Because last year City coasted to a runners-up place, and now Hart has continually dropped precious points this season, making him one of City’s biggest liabilities on the pitch. Which won’t help Manuel Pellegrini in what’s been a challenging first season in a club with the highest of expectations. January needs to come sharpish.

There was also Sunderland’s thrilling Tyne-Wear derby win over Newcastle on Sunday, in which Fabio Borini, on loan from Liverpool, scored an outstanding long-range strike to seal the points in Gus Poyet’s first home game with the Black Cats, who have quadrupled their points total for the season with the win. Southampton and Everton continued their excellent starts to the season with a pair of 2-0 wins, taking them to fifth and sixth in the table, in the process establishing themselves as strong challengers for the European places. A thrilling few months to come.

 

Fergie reminisces about a time gone by

A few months after Sir Alex Ferguson departed Old Trafford with the fondest adulations and fresh memories of all the right things he’s done in his 26 years as Manchester United boss, he comes out with a book that has it all—but will only be remembered for the wounds he’s opened up again, the fights he’s decided to pick even after retirement, and the dressing room secrets he wasn’t supposed to spill.

As a man management and motivator, Ferguson rarely got things wrong. He kept the spotlight firmly on himself and manipulated the media (and his rivals) to an extent that he enjoyed near totalitarian domination (and admiration) from everyone in football. To be sure, there’s plenty of the managerial insights in his autobiography that will be interesting add-ons to the interviews he’s done as a subject for publications focusing on management and success.

The cynical, petty and no-holds-barred side also shines through. We’d always looked forward to the relevations behind David Beckham and Roy Keane’s departure from Old Trafford, but never did we expect so much dirt to be aired. We’d always expected barbs at old rivals Liverpool and Rafa Benitez, but never did we think he’d call Steven Gerrard “not a top, top player.”

But in describing his managerial philosophy—that no one should be bigger than the manager at a football club, and once any player violated that rule, he was moved on—Ferguson also writes about an era that is fast slipping away. With the exception of Arsene Wenger, who enjoys near-total control at Arsenal, English football is moving into the 21st century of corporatism, with brands, reputations, marketing, profits and spectacle in mind.

The Manchester United after him was always going to be markedly different, whether David Moyes became the next manager or not. In time, Ferguson’s book may be seen as a time capsule of an obsolete style of football management.

 

England’s grassroots football needs more than just facilities

Last week, it was announced that the Premier League, UK government and Football Association committed £102m to improving grassroots football facilities, which, in light of the recent opening of St. George’s Park and the increased emphasis on youth development and organized football, was encouraging news to all involved in English football.

Whether this means the end of pick-up football in a neighboring park with shirts as goalposts is still up in the air—though I’d surely lament the loss of organic football centered on just having fun—but with the advent of organized football coaching for kids up and down the country, and all across the world, this is the next wave of grassroots football finally arriving on English shores.

But what England really needs is more than just facilities. They already have arguably the best in the world on that front, but it’s not translating into on-field successes. We’ll leave the debate on whether a strong Premier League and a strong English national team are mutually exclusive for later, but to really inspire a generation of outstanding young footballers, there needs to be a revamp in coaching, club academies and footballing culture across all levels.

It means youth coaches—the most important in a young footballer’s journey to the top—need to focus less on winning games and more on team play, passing, movement and flair. It means that kids need to be encouraged to take risks and try new moves. It means that kids need to have the right platforms and competitions to play in during their rise through the ranks. This could lead to a remodeling of the reserve system to inject, say, an Arsenal B in League One (though the U21 Premier League has been a major upgrade over the defunct reserve system), but should definitely lead to a cultural reformation that prizes improvisation, technique and creativity over the clichéd “heart and guts” that the English are now stereotyped for.

The coaching and the culture are at the center of grassroots football, not facilities. Brazil grew generation after generation of World Cup winners on the streets, not fancy million-pound youth academies.

 

This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.