To say that Francis Chung is passionate and enthusiastic about the development of both professional and grassroots football in Hong Kong is an understatement; he is a man who has lived and breathed the game since his youth and the pursuit of his dream has lead him to become one of the most influential people in Hong Kong football and beyond.
In his various prominent and authoritative footballing roles, such as being a member of the HKFA “Project Phoenix” Steering Committee, former Head of Commercial and Marketing for the HKFA and former Chairman of the Hong Kong Football Club Soccer Section amongst many leading roles, he has definitely been instrumental and influential in pushing several initiatives which have proved to be highly successful in helping to draw back fans to the local game, develop youth players and making Hong Kong competitive on the international stage.
First and foremost, Chung is an ardent football fan who has used his knowledge and energy to revolutionize the game from the bottom up and is happy to share his opinions on the strengths and weakenesses of the game beloved in the city. In his company, there is no doubt of his commitment towards its evolution beyond the now past glory days of the seventies and eighties to a brighter and more structured future with the national team being competitive at the highest levels.
Due to his devotion and dedication, Chung has experienced the game from both a playing perspective and also from the highest administrative and marketing points of view. Chung has been a player at international level when he represented his native Australia (Australian U19 and U23 Futsal) and was also a player for the Hong Kong Football Club for many years.
In a very buoyant and vivacious interview, Chung took the time to have a chat about all levels of the game in Hong Kong in terms of development and administration.
You were a member of the Project Phoenix Steering Committee. Do you think the project has hit the targets which were initially set?
In terms of football in general in Hong Kong, if you look at Hong Kong football pre Project Phoenix and football Post Project Phoenix, the game has definitely improved and when I say the game, I think it is really just to focus on the Hong Kong Premier League but if you look across the board, the game has improved. There is the summer youth programme which is a programme which the Hong Kong Football Association and the Jockey club has put together and I think it is the largest summer participation programme in Hong Kong and it is incredibly popular and it has continued to grow.
If you look at the commitment of the youth league, I think we went from every second age group to now where there is an age group for every youth league for every age so there is a pathway for every kid at every age. Obviously, there is the development of the Hong Kong Premier League and then if you look at the results of the recent World Cup qualifiers then we did extremely well without being fairly rewarded given some of the results that we actually achieved. As I said earlier, for the age group national teams, the ’98 group qualified for the Under 16 Asian Cup in 2014 and no Hong Kong team had ever actually qualified for an Asian Cup before.
If you look at Hong Kong football pre and post Project Phoenix then there is no doubt in my mind that the game has improved; whether it is the Hong Kong national team performance or the establishment of the Hong Kong Premier League or the qualification of the Under 16 group for the Asian Cup in Thailand two years ago, we can now see that across all the age groups, from 12 onwards, there is actually a competitive programme for players to participate in.
To you, what are the major failings of the Hong Kong game and how can these be rectified?
I think any sport is never perfect and you know, sport is an industry and all industries can evolve and improve. If there are one or two areas I would focus on then one would be an area which needs to re-energized. I think the fan base is shrinking and certainly the fan base is not growing and it takes me back a few years when I took my now 15 year old son to a game and he must have been about ten years old and he looked around Sham Shui Po stadium and then he looked at me and bare in mind that kids are innocent and speak the truth and he looked at me and said “Dad..why are the spectators so old?” and for me that was it and I turned around to my son and said “What is interesting is…they are the same fans that watched the game three decades ago, two decades ago, last decade and now”. I think we have to energize the game to bring some younger fans back to the game.
I have always held the view that the standard does not have to be world class, it just has to be the best in terms of the resources that we have within the territory. As long as the games are competitive it makes it interesting and as soon as you have that interest then you start to engage the fans.
I think the other area we ought to look at is, we all know the FA is very limited in terms of budget and we know clubs are limited in budget so there is a blessing in disguise in that technology, social media, now plays a very powerful platform now across all industries in order to engage customers and stakeholders and fans and in a very cost effective way of helping to build and engage communities and given the limited budgets that all of the clubs and associations work with, I think a lot more can be done in that area in trying to engage the community.
For me, if you look at the World Cup qualifier games, whether it was against China or against the other teams, we had a lot of support and a lot of interest across spectators and fans. It really did help galvanize the territory and the team and that was reflected in performance so yes, competitive games will help to generate that fan base and that is one of the areas I don’t think we have done well in the past and it is something that is in our control and we can do.
From your own experiences in Hong Kong football, would you deem all the levels of the game to be truly professional and up to standard?
I wont talk about the professional teams because that has been discussed on different forums and publications and I don’t think I can do anymore justice for that and that has already been done positively or negatively but what I will say is that if you look below that and again you can tie this back to your original question about Project Phoenix again; not only do we have competitive age groups but there are more and more Hong Kong representatives team age groups which have been put on place now so for kids, I think, from the age of Under 12s onwards, there is actually a representative team squad for the very best players in Hong Kong to actually participate in, and as I said, if you look at that ’98 age group team, they were probably the first group that went from 13 to 14 to 15 to 16 as a group and they did well as a 14 year group at the Festival of Football in Beijing, they did well in qualifiers and they ultimately qualified.
For me, where the gap is actually from that age group, from the 19 year olds to the professionals and the reason for being is because, as a 16 year old, the concept of high performance is less relevant than the technical side of the game but when boys and girls start developing the power and aerobic capacity the high performance side starts to kick in and so I would contend that it is going to be very very difficult to qualify for an Under 19 Asian cup as supposed to an Under 16 Asian cup and a lot of that has to then do with the professionalism of the game and the development of those players.
One of the difficulties that we have is that if we don’t qualify as 18 year olds for the Under 19 Asian championships then there is a gap then from Under 21 so there is a lost generation every year of kids from the age of 17 to 18 up to 20 and 21.
If you don’t qualify for the Asian Cup then you don’t go to the World Youth Cup and then you have a two year hiatus where players will do nothing and then these kids are moving into a professional club where they are competing with all age players for first team spots and they are not going to get that; they maybe squad players but they don’t have the resources allocated to them at a national level as they have nothing to play for so for so that is probably the one area that I would focus on which is that these are kids that have gone from being elite youth players to becoming professionals and they are young pros so not all them, most of them will be squad players rather than starting players and at the same time because they don’t qualify for the continental championships and they don’t qualify for the World Youth cup then there is a three year period where they do very little for the national team and that I think is the one area which actually holds Hong Kong back.
If we had that continued pathway then and that intensity for those players then they seamlessly go into their clubs then and they are more prepared for that professional environment then going forward as well as the international environment.
Furthermore, everyone talks about ‘high performance’ but there is another aspect, which is player welfare. That is something lacking in the HK game. Couch professionalism in two ways which is the development of players and protection of players as you can’t have the former if you don’t do the latter.
You were the Chairman of the HKFC Soccer Section the last time HKFC were in the top flight. What did you learn from the experience?
It was not so much from what I learnt from the experience as when I was chairman (of the HKFC Soccer Section), we had been in the First Division (Pre HKPL) on and off prior to that. I was Secretary at the Hong Kong Football Club when I was an active player so it wasn’t so much of what did I learn but it was more what the expectations were and as then Soccer Section Chairman I had a pretty firm view of it which was, it wasn’t so much how well we did as opposed to how competitive we were and the opportunities that we were offering our players to participate in the 1st division. Whether they were existing club members or players who had come through our pathway to be able to play at the highest level or whether it was local players who were prepared to come to the club and commit to the club and be members of the club to play and showcase their ability and again, if you look at that squad from when we were last in the First Division then we didn’t stay up but we had some incredible results such as beating South China.
When you don’t have money and when you are competing with money, you cannot expect to compete but when you see those sort of results then you know it is hugely satisfying but what was even more satisfying is that when you now go through that squad list then you identify players that went from HKFC and were then signed by other professional clubs the following year when we got relegated then and from there who then kicked on by having a significant career in the old Hong Kong first division or who actually went onto represent Hong Kong, the senior Hong Kong representative team or who then went onto to take their football skills and placed them in other areas such as coaching staff or at HKFA coaching; what they learnt at the football club to develop their own commercial business or football schools or other areas. That particular group for me was a very special group!
It was never about whether they got promoted or not or if they stayed up or if they got relegated or how many points they got as it was always about the opportunity and what that opportunity provided and from that squad that year, the number of kids who then went on to professional contracts, there must have been eight of them. From my experience anyway, that had never happened in the previous years we were in the old Hong Kong first division so it was not so much what did we learn; I think we fully understood what we were getting into but it was more of a question of what we were trying to achieve and for me, it was never explicitly about staying in the first division, it was, are these players going to become better footballers for being in the old Hong Kong First Division?
As the former head of Commercial and Marketing for the Hong Kong Football Association, how did you try and help draw fans back to the local game?
When I took an executive role at the Hong Kong Football Association as Head of Commercial and Marketing, it was at that time, we had just literally implemented Project Phoenix so we really didn’t have the structure in place as we had just appointed a CEO; he needed some help so literally there was nothing in place at the time. There was no commercial structure and there was no marketing structure.
We actually set up a HKFA Facebook page back then and we got really good engagement out of it actually and so the fellow who runs it now, Jo Li, he is a very passionate guy who loves his football and he is someone who is passionate and you need people like that and at the time, as I said, even before you talk about marketing, you just had to place structures in place.
At the time, we never sold the commercial rights to the games overseas so you know so we had to work with the local television and media companies and try and re-negotiate contracts as again to try and generate commercials fees. For the kit sponsors, again, we had to negotiate contracts to make sure we had the rights and structures in place to it meant we could maximize the allocated budgets we could get so even before we got down to marketing and fan engagement, there was a lot to do behind the scenes to make sure, as any company running its business, you would maximize your limited resources.
The HKFA website was revamped, the connectivity grew between the fans and the HKFA through the articles being written and interviewing players and giving the back story on players. It helps to let the communities to actually feel they know players and if you feel like you know them then you start to take an interest in their progression. Even now, it still blows my mind, you can walk down the street and you see Hong Kongers wearing HKFA fan gear or replica jerseys and you never used to see that!
So I am not saying it is there or even good but it (marketing) has progressed and with my experience of marketing whether in football or banking and finance or with my own lifestyle clothing brand, there is always something you can do but it takes time. Social media does build communities in a very cost effective way but how do you engage these communities in a commercial way so I think they (HKFA) are at that stage right now when they are building that community and as I said, at the start of Project Phoenix that is a positive change but they will continue to evolve and technology is always going to help.