Ten members of the squad who represented Hong Kong in October’s U23 Asian Cup qualifiers have been slapped with 1-year international bans over various team rules and COVID protocol violations. How we got here and how this could affect Hong Kong at the Asian Games:
The Hong Kong Football Association’s Disciplinary Committee announced on Tuesday afternoon that ten players have been banned from international play following an investigation into allegations of unruly behaviour, underaged drinking and destruction of property which occurred during the U23 Asian Cup qualifiers in October. Five of the ten players were also fined for their involvement due to the severity of their infractions.
Tse Ka-wing and Lam Hin-ting were handed the harshest punishments, with both players fined $6,000 and handed one-year international bans for violating the COVID protocol set by the Asian Football Confederation at the tournament and for severe breaches of the players’ Code of Conduct set by the HKFA.
Jordan Lam, Marco Cheung, and Chu Wai-kwan were fined $3,000 and handed one-year international bans for violating COVID protocol and less severe violations of the Code of Conduct.
Max Poon, Ryan Cheng, Michael Chiu, Ng Ka-yeung, and Yip Cheuk-man escaped fines and were only barred from representing Hong Kong for a year.
One additional player – believed to be Shinichi Chan – has appealed his punishment, and will have his appeal heard at a later date. He was not named in the DC’s press release.
Punishment comes after outrage over inaction and transparency
In October, the U23’s travelled to Japan for two qualifying matches against Cambodia on the 23th and Japan on the 28th. The team flew back to Hong Kong on the morning of the 29th and arrived later that afternoon.
On 30 November, SportsOne reported that “more than half” of the squad began drinking hours upon return to the team hotel following the Japan match. Citing their sources as unnamed players, SportsOne alleged that the players began buying large amounts of alcohol from hotel’s self-service vending machine, with at least one of those involved being under the Japanese drinking age of 20. The players involved then drank to the point of being inebriated, leading to unruly behaviour and causing damage to hotel property. The report did not elaborate as to what trouble was caused nor the severity of the damage that was caused.
The event drew comparisons to a similar drinking binge in 2019 by the Hong Kong U18 team whilst the team were attending training camp in Thailand. Although the perpetrators of that incident were never named, several members of the U23’s were also present during the 2019 training camp.
A night after the SportsOne report broke, U23 manager Cheung Kin-fung, who is also the head coach of the Premier League’s Hong Kong U23 team, admitted that he did not intend to disclose the incident to the public had it not been leaked. He declined the comment further beyond stating that he had submitted a memo to the HKFA.
Immediately, the Hong Kong football community began speculating on the identities of the players. Tse, who had been the Premier League U23’s starting keeper in each of the team’s first four matches prior to his international duties, was suddenly dropped from the team after completing quarantine. Cheung, though, denied that the two events were related and even suggested, unconvincingly, that he and goalkeeper coach Chan Chun-yu had decided before the season to rotate keepers at this juncture of the season.
On the same night, former Hong Kong international Chan Wai-ho speculated that Lam must have “certainly” been involved, after having gotten to know Lam for two years while the pair played together at Dreams FC. But, he doubted that the HKFA would ever go as far as to bar the players from international play.
On 2 December, HKFA CEO Joe Tam admitted that an incident had occurred in Japan and that the coaches who were with the team had apologized to the Japan Football Association. He also added that the HKFA have offered to compensate the hotel for damages. The CEO acknowledged that the incident was “serious”, but then appeared to downplay the incident. He stated that drinking, whilst on international duty, is acceptable as long as it was legal and framed the issue as a problem with “drunkenness and unhealthy consumption of alcohol.”
Tam denied that the HKFA had tried to bury the incident, claiming that the organization had only received the JFA’s investigation into the matter in the last week of November and left it up to the Disciplinary Committee to adjudicate the matter.
The DC finally made its judgments public on Tuesday.
Reaction to the punishments
In their press release detailing the punishments, the HKFA stated that it “understands the concerns of all sectors of society regarding the incident and hopes that the players involved can learn their lesson and be more vigilant about their conduct, words and deeds as members of the representative team.”
Cheung Kin-fung told Sing Tao, “I’ve stressed to the players that the incident has seriously harmed the reputation of the (Hong Kong U23’s) and I hope that after they’ve been punished, they will learn from this experience, cherish the opportunities that they’ve been given as footballers and be careful not to repeat the same mistakes in the future.”
As for the players’ respective clubs, Eastern have said that Chu Wai-kwan and Ng Ka-yeung would be fined and will be made to assist in academy player training sessions. Ho Shun-yin, director of football at Resources Capital, stated that Jordan Lam, Yip Cheuk-man and Michael Chiu would have their appearance fees deducted for their involvement. The Premier League U23’s have confirmed that they will levy internal discipline actions against Tse Ka-wing and Marco Cheung.
A Kitchee spokesperson stated that the club will decide whether to punish Max Poon or not after it receives more information from the HKFA regarding his involvement. Rangers’ director, Philip Lee, stated that he would not discipline Lam Hin-ting further beyond issuing him a stern warning.
Implications for the Asian Games
The exile of ten players will greatly affect the pool of available players for Cheung Kin-fung to pick from heading into the Asian Games football tournament in September, although the coach will be able to choose up to three overaged players.
Ng Wai-him, who has emerged as Southern’s starting keeper, is the likely starter for Hong Kong after his main rival for the job, Tse Ka-wing, has been banned. Lo Siu-kei could also be an option if he can make more of his opportunities in the Sapling Cup.
At the back, Lam Hin-ting, Marco Cheung, and Yip Cheuk-man are all starters for their respective clubs and their absence will leave the Hong Kong team short of professional experience. Kitchee’s Ellison Tang has been solid in his three Sapling Cup appearances thus far, though the coach Cheung may deem him as too risky to call up at this point.
Although the hole at centreback, where Cheung and Yip have played this season, could be filled by adding an overaged player, the potential loss of Shinichi Chan could be the biggest hammer blow of all. Chan, despite being 19 years of age, has played in more professional matches than all of the U23’s combined, with the exception of one. This, in addition to his crossing ability and the potential of missing out an opportunity to impress in front of international scouts, would be a real tragedy for Hong Kong.
In midfield, the loss of Ryan Cheng and Michael Chiu means that Cheung will need to find two holding midfielders to replace them. Fortunately, this is an area where Hong Kong has depth, as HKFC’s Oliver Laxton and Tang In-chim, who plays for Cheung at the club level, are both capable replacements. Laxton can also slide in at right back should Cheung need to switch Alex Jojo to the left in order to fill in for Chan. RCFC’s Lau Kwan-ching, who some may argue was a surprise omission from the qualifying squad, is a player who Cheung could call upon to provide a box-to-box option.
The head coach will undoubtedly be grateful that Sohgo Ichikawa, expected to be one the team’s main creative forces, was not involved in the incident.
Hong Kong will miss Jordan Lam’s experience up front as he is the most experienced player of the group who were banned. However, Eastern’s Ma Hei-wai has shown flashes of brilliance in the Sapling Cup while Lee Man’s Marcus Chang has played well enough this season to be Hong Kong’s starter at left wing come September, regardless of whether Lam had been banned or not. Max Poon and Ng Ka-yeung’s absences will leave two holes at right wing, and Poon’s absence in particular will hurt more as he can also play right back. Cheung could switch Chang to right wing in order to provide depth at the position to provide service to his centre forward. He could also consider Chang’s Lee Man teammate Anson Wong as a potential replacement as Wong can play on either side of the pitch.
The loss of Chu Wai-kwan complicates matters greatly for Cheung as centre forward is a position where Hong Kong lacks depth at both the senior and youth levels. Although Chu has yet to prove himself as a clinical scorer at the club level, he offers a level of relative physicality and hold up play that is rare to find in Hong Kong centre forwards.
Presently, the number one option for Hong Kong is Sun Ming-him, who has scored eight goals and contributed four assists in 14 appearances across all competitions this season for Eastern. However, Eastern refused to let him to the U23 qualifiers and whether they would be willing to let him go to the Asian Games next year is an open question.
The striker position is an area where Cheung was likely to call up an overaged player regardless, but now, he faces serious questions about how he will utilize his three overage slots. Four years ago, Hong Kong was able to call upon Jordi, who also happened to be a naturalized player. James Ha has the potential to terrorize a backline of under-23 players but he could also be ineffective as a lone striker. Cheung’s best option may end up being Sandro, who has been capped 27 times at the senior level, but has remained unattached since leaving Eastern last June.
Of course, given how the HKFA have traditionally operated, one cannot rule out the possibility of bans being commuted depending on the needs of the Hong Kong team.