HKFA CEO Paul Woodland announced Monday that an agreement had been reached with the government to reopen Tseung Kwan O Sports Ground on a limited basis.
The Hong Kong Football Association held a meeting at its headquarters on Monday during which Premier League clubs were informed that the government had agreed to reopen Tseung Kwan O Sports Ground on a limited basis.
CEO Paul Woodland told reporters afterwards that matches would resume beginning on Saturday with Round 1 of the HKFA Cup. He revealed that the HKFA’s foremost priority was to complete every round of the HKFA Cup, short of the final, over the next three weeks before the FIFA international break.
Due to the Department of Health’s Epidemic Prevention Guidelines, no more than 120 personnel including players, staff, media members and select guests shall be allowed into the stadium at any time. All four dressing rooms at Tseung Kwan O Sports Ground will be utilized – with each team allocated two rooms each – although only nine players at a time may enter any dressing room.
Players will not be permitted to use the shower facilities inside the dressing rooms. Halftime team talks will take place inside designated meeting rooms at the stadium and all matches will remain closed to spectators for the time being.
In response to suggestions from clubs, Woodland mentioned that the HKFA would consider scheduling some league matches for March 21.
“The schedule for April will be tight,” he said. “Some clubs will have to compete in the AFC Cup and others will have matches every three days so we’re going to do our best to lessen the burden for them.” He added that a revised schedule would be released on Tuesday afternoon.
Woodland confirmed that while the HKFA had requested three venues from the government, they did not receive a proper response. He did, however, confirm that Mong Kok Stadium and Siu Sai Wan Sports Ground had been arranged as backup venues, although only one match would be scheduled per day.
Clubs accept the arrangements but to varying degrees
On February 13, clubs threatened to boycott matches if Leisure and Cultural Services Department venues were not reopened. There was hope that this could be avoided when the LCSD announced on Friday that sports grounds would be reopened for jogging. However, their announcement stopped short of reopening football pitches.
Steven Lo, chairman of Pegasus, was less than pleased with the dressing room and shower arrangements. He questioned whether expert advice was consulted as sports grounds would be opened to a maximum of 150 joggers at a time, whereas, football matches would be limited to 120 people.
“If (the coronavirus) is contagious, then even a group of three people is too dangerous,” said an exasperated Lo.
Eastern head coach and technical director Lee Chi-kin also attended the meeting but disagreed with Lo.
“Just being able to return to proper stadiums is a positive,” he told the media. “The dressing room arrangements are not ideal but…this is not in the hands of the HKFA. They must follow certain government guidelines.
“This is a unique situation for Hong Kong football, an exceptional period for sports and the Hong Kong people. I hope that the HKFA will continue to fight for the interests of the clubs and of the players. Everything right now is a luxury. It’s the least worst option in a bad situation.”
Lee suggested to the HKFA that they arrange for coach buses to shuttle the players from Tseung Kwan O Sports Ground to the Football Training Centre after every match. This would provide a solution for players to shower after the match.
Locations for World Cup qualifiers still to be confirmed
The Hong Kong men’s national team is scheduled to play in Tehran against Iran on the 26th before returning to host Iraq on the 31st. Woodland revealed that there had been correspondence with FIFA about those arrangements but he was told that there had been no changes.
On Saturday, HKFA chairman Pui Kwan-kay told the media that the team was “extremely unlikely” to travel to Iran. Beginning midnight Sunday, all travellers from Iran are subject to a 14 day quarantine as a result of the government’s decision to issue a “red” outbound travel alert.
Any quarantine would make it “impossible” for the team to fulfill its fixture against Iraq according to Woodland thus, accordingly, on Monday morning he applied for the Iran match to be moved to a neutral venue. He further stated that because the Hong Kong Sevens had been postponed, he also applied for the Iraq fixture to be moved from Mong Kok Stadium to Hong Kong Stadium.
The HKFA CEO noted that there have been suggestions that the coronavirus epidemic may cause FIFA to cancel the international window in March. “If there are no international games this month,” he said, “we can have more flexibility by filling it with local fixtures as we still aim at finishing the season in May.”
Man: Current situation worse than SARS
In an interview last Thursday, Pegasus head coach Peter Man expressed concern about the impact of the epidemic on the football industry.
“I’m definitely worried about the number of teams (in the Premier League) next season, not because of the loss of competitiveness, but because of the loss of professional players,” he told Upower. “Just because you have the ability (to play at the professional level), doesn’t mean there will be a club to accommodate you.
“If some players have to drop down to the lower divisions and play for amateur clubs, after a while, they may lose the desire to return to professional football which will shrink the pool of professional players.”
When asked to compare the current situation to the 2003 SARS epidemic, Man said that the current situation is worse and that players would be the hardest hit group in the industry.
“After the 2003 epidemic, 10 percent of the player pool left professional football due to lack of appearances or lack of income,” he recalled. “I was fortunate because there weren’t any responsibilities back home for me to worry about so I was able to continue chasing my dream.”
Man revealed that he had heard that other clubs are considering tightening their budgets next season. He agreed, though, that just as business are reducing their expenditures during the economic downturn, football clubs may need to do likewise or consider folding.
Nonetheless, the former South China midfielder believed that players who are talented and are willing to work hard will be able to withstand any turbulence in the economy.
“Sports is a meritocracy,” he explained. “You get back what you put in.
“I tell young players – I wasn’t an exceptional player but what I wasn’t going to let happen was for anyone to outcompete me. Ask yourself this: do you want to be a top player or do you only want to say that you were a professional once upon a time?
“Only you can choose the path you take.”