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Kicking Covid thoughts into touch

Doha, 23 November 2022: Brazilian football icon Pele popularised the phrase “the beautiful game” – o jogo bonito in his native Portuguese – although its exact origin is unclear. He had every reason to love his chosen sport: one of the finest players of all time, he won the World Cup on three occasions. His last triumph – in the 1970 tournament in Mexico, considered by many the best finals in history – cemented his legend.

Fast forward 52 years and the ongoing showpiece in Qatar underscores Pele’s ethos. While there are well-documented off-field issues, the football itself, camaraderie among fans – this writer included – and sense of occasion all combine for an intoxicating mix of drama, colour, noise and passion.

This was exemplified yesterday as underdogs Saudi Arabia stunned Argentina – many people’s favourites for the trophy – in perhaps the greatest World Cup upset of all. Certainly, it ranks up there with the time in 1950 when a bunch of part-timers from the USA overcame star-studded England (newspaper editors in London received a teleprint of the 1-0 scoreline and assumed it was a misprint), or the memorable occasion in 1966 when North Korea beat mighty Italy. That loss saw the Italians eliminated and they flew home to be greeted by an angry mob who pelted them with rotten tomatoes at Genoa’s airport.

It was only their first group game, so Argentina and ageing superstar Lionel Messi may yet prevail. But whatever happens next, nothing will erase Saudi joy over a sporting spectacle that was, in the words of one football correspondent, “played out to a soundtrack of ear-splitting noise and Arabian fervour”. It was a privilege to be present.

Revelling in this carnival of football and comradeship, it is easy to forget about Covid-obsessed Hong Kong. Yet reading the news headlines, talking with family and staying connected with the office means it is never far from my thoughts. Our Chief Executive John Lee has tested positive after returning on Sunday from an Asian trade summit in Bangkok. “He is being isolated in accordance with the guidelines of the Centre for Health Protection,” says a spokesman. Mr Lee is now experiencing what many of us have endured in recent months: working from home and conducting meetings via video.

Our Covid-hit economy continues to suffer. The government has downgraded its full-year forecast from between 0.5% growth and 0.5% contraction to a 3.2% drop, making us one of the worst performers in the region. This has brought a slumping property market, with prices expected to bottom out in the second quarter of next year at the earliest, following an estimated drop of 20% from a record high posted in 2021, according to Citibank. Naturally, this is resulting in associated job cuts. With real estate transactions expected to hit a 32-year low in 2022, Hong Kong’s four major residential property agencies are to lay off more than 3,000 employees through the beginning of next year.

Perhaps some of those looking for work will find it overseas. We can read how Australia has taken more than 1,000 top professionals from our city over the last three years, many of them employed in financial services and fintech, digital technology and health. Hong Kong – population less than 7.3 million, remember – now ranks third behind the world’s two most populous nations, mainland China and India, as Australia’s main source of top talent.

Any good news? Yes, sort of, in the context of Covid restrictions. The health authorities have reduced the number of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for overseas arrivals from four to two, although the requirement to conduct a rapid antigen test (RAT) each day for a week remains. Of course, various other strict – and, in the opinion of many citizens, unnecessary – regulations remain. All members of the public face a HK$5,000 fine if they are caught without a mask outdoors (unless exercising), group gatherings are limited to 12 people and the LeaveHomeSafe track-and-trace app must be used to enter many venues.

And this is not forgetting the onerous “0+3” rule – overseas arrivals have to undergo three days of medical surveillance, during which they are banned from pubs and restaurants – which continues to dissuade tourists. Even a scheme to exempt tour groups from this requirement is bound by red tape. Applications from tour agencies are taking several days to approve and must include a list of designated restaurants their clients will visit. And then there is the small matter of helping visitors install the LeaveHomeSafe app and teaching them how to upload their daily RAT results to the government’s website. The outcome is wholly unsatisfactory. Who could not be moved by yesterday’s tale of a Thai tour group banned from dining out until the final day of their four-day visit?

No such issues in Qatar, thankfully. Today I’m off to Morocco vs Croatia, but it’s the thought of Brazil taking on unpredictable Serbia tomorrow that really sets the pulse racing. Can Pele’s compatriots win it again? If England fall short, a Brazilian triumph would, indeed, be beautiful.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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