«Letter to Hong Kong» the Chief Executive

May 27, 2006

The ball is round

Fellow citizens,

With just two weeks to go before the 2006 FIFA World Cup kicks off, all the teams are busy with their final preparations. Football fans in Hong Kong are also gearing up for the matches - stocking up on beer, snacks and soft drinks. Despite the sleepless nights, the subsequent dark circles under the eyes, or the rumbles from family members, fans throw themselves headlong into the spirit of this world football showpiece once every four years.

I'm not a big football fan. It's so busy these days I just can't afford 90 minutes to watch a game from the English Premier League, the Italian Serie A League or the Spanish Primera Liga. But, when it comes to the World Cup finals, that's different - I will definitely try to steal some time to enjoy some of these thrilling matches.

Many of us have heard the familiar saying: "The ball is round." It is the pet phrase of the well-known sports commentator Ng Fong-wing. When you first hear it, it seems like a silly thing to say. Of course, the ball is round! But on reflection, it does capture the excitement of football. The games can be so unpredictable - how many times have we seen an apparent weakling pull off a stunning victory against a much stronger and experienced team? This is one of the wonders of football.

The World Cup competition is littered with examples of why "the ball is round". In the opening game of the last tournament Senegal astonished the world by beating France, who were the defending champions. The Korea Republic, dubbed 'Taeguk Warriors', marched into the semi-finals subduing European powerhouses such as Italy and Spain. They showed that, on the football pitch at least, nothing is impossible.

The success of these teams is not just based on luck. Rather, it is built on determination and team spirit. Senegal beat France because of the strength of co-operation among team members - every player played his heart out and stuck faithfully to pre-planned tactics. The Korea Republic showed the world that "the ball is round" with their physical strength and superb tactics, as well as their solidarity and indomitable will.

Like most football fans in the 1970s and 1980s, the enjoyment of watching football was very much influenced by the stars of the day. In those days, football games often turned into one-man shows by superstars such as Pele, the Brazilian king of soccer; Rivelino, the super left-foot striker; Zico, the excellent free-kick taker; and Maradona, the icon of Argentina. I would stare at the TV and wait eagerly for the magnificent moments of their magical footwork, cross-kicks and step-overs. To me, their superb skills made the game, and these gifted athletes were heroes.

Gradually, though, football tactics have changed. Even a strong team such as Brazil could not simply rely on the skills of one or two great players. The emphasis has shifted to tactics and formation. The efficiency of the midfielders is crucial, while the star strikers have to assist with defence, as well as offence, in their quest to slam a ball into the back of the net. An era of pragmatism has replaced that of romanticism on the field. It's unlikely that scenes such as Maradona dribbling past six English rivals and scoring a goal will be seen again. People now watch matches from a new perspective. I myself have started to focus on the overall tactics of football teams. What I appreciate most are the commanders, the all-action midfield players. Instead of showing off his own dexterity, a real superstar is a good leader on the pitch. He co-operates with his teammates; he leads the attack, as well as the defence. "Miracles" on the football pitch are not brought about by luck. Rather, they come from the training the teams have gone through, the co-ordination among players, the tactics devised by the coaches, the leadership of the star players, and the overall morale of the team in action. When an opportunity arises, the whole team would seize the moment, and the synergy of their efforts would come into play.

The deeper truth that lies behind the seemingly obvious statement that "the ball is round" is not just evident in a football match. Nor is it true that determination and team spirit are important only in football. Over the years, Hong Kong people have demonstrated time and again their perseverance in overcoming all manner of difficulties. This indefatigable spirit and resilience has exceeded expectations and allowed Hong Kong to punch above its weight in the global arena. A good community leader must be able to inspire the people to harness their team spirit; to encourage different community sectors to strive for excellence under favourable circumstances, and to turn back the tide when facing adversity; to use our success to show that "the ball is round".

In the upcoming World Cup Finals, I'll be keeping a close eye on the tactics deployed to try to get an insight into the various teams' secrets of success.


  Donald TSANG Yam-kuen  
Donald TSANG Yam-kuen,
Chief Executive