South China AA ended their dry spell in the AFC Cup with a 2-0 victory over Maldives outfit Maziya Sports and Recreation Club on Wednesday.
After four losses on the trot, the Hong Kong side found their form and easily dispatched the Maldivian FA Charity Shield holders.
Two first-half goals – a volley from Law Hiu Chung and a top-left curl from Chan Siu Ki – was the difference as South China hope to keep the momentum rolling into their final Group G fixtures.
But it was a different sort of rolling that dominated the match. Since Sunday, Hong Kong has been experiencing heavy downpours and these conditions heavily influenced the game. At times, it was more like witnessing a figure skating contest.
Within the opening two minutes five players had slipped over, including Mahama Awal and Ibrahim Ushamath whose domino fall was near slapstick in style.
In the ninth minute, Maziya’s Mohamed Umair hit the deck after failing to slow his run. Five minutes later, it was mayhem in the Maziya box as South China pelted the opposition’s goal only for numerous players to slip in their attempts to draw first blood.
That all occurred in the first 15 minutes…
I lost count of the number of trips and slides as both sides struggled with the waterlogged pitch. Many tried to manage their speed and movement to suit the conditions only for it to result in heavily-compensating turn of pace.
Granted, there are more mishaps on a wet pitch. Yet, this was unusually clumsy. Bambi wouldn’t have looked too wobbly by comparison.
Going down to examine the pitch afterwards and next to the Main Grandstand were blotches of puddles. Mini pools dotted all over. There are obviously pitches in far worse nick; but for a stadium which underwent a major facelift five years ago, to see such a saturated ground was disappointing.
Unfortunately, the story is not a new one in the city. Throughout Hong Kong, there are pitches lacking the TLC of a groundsman.
This came to the fore in 2013 with the “Muddy Turf Fiasco”. During the Barclays Asia Trophy, a series of top players from the EPL were injured as a result of Hong Kong Stadium’s ill-kept surface. Then-Sunderland Manager Paolo Di Canio called the pitch “a killer”, while his Spurs’ counterpart Andre Villas-Boas said, “I would prefer not to play”. Manchester United would go on to cancel a public training session amid injury concerns to their players.
After two years of political wrangling and planning, the Hong Kong Stadium pitch was returfed (complete with modern irrigation and drainage systems). Its first major test took place last weekend with the annual rugby showcase, The Sevens. Despite the customary Sunday downpour, the pitch held-up.
Speaking to several groundsmen, I was told the events of 2013 were a catalyst for change. The result of which was a pitch that could better handle the demands of Hong Kong’s fluctuating conditions.
When moist, the ground hardens quicker due to the composition of sand. This allows the ground to return to its natural state faster, something which benefited Fiji, who claimed top honours at the Sevens. During their quarter-final encounter with Kenya, the sodden pitch drastically slowed down their game almost giving Kenya a shock victory. After it had hardened a couple of hours later, Fiji once again looked unbeatable and went on to walkover New Zealand in the final.
While it took some injuries to kick the Leisure and Cultural Services into action, it has resulted in a newer pitch and satisfied players and fans alike. With a budget of HK$796 million, one would think there were enough funds to improve the city’s grounds. Surely it is better to direct these funds towards surfaces and not towards injury compensation to traveling players and teams?
But the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and respective sporting associations appear to be dragging their feet. The question is: why?