Hong Kong Football’s Current Crisis: “It is an Extremely Difficult Time for Football and Life in HK and Hopefully We Can Get to The Other Side”

Recreational and professional sports in Hong Kong have ground to a halt again.  Like all areas of society, livelihoods have been severely impacted and those who make a living, as professional athletes or via coaching, are struggling as facilities remain closed and revenue streams have dried up.

The Hong Kong Premier League and all associated competitions also are now currently left in limbo. Hong Kong football, already at times hanging on by a thread, faces unprecedented challenges which will again set the Hong Kong game backwards and lagging behind its regional rivals.

Several names from the HK premier league gave their thoughts on HK’s football (and all sports) on-going difficulties.

Zesh Rehman, Southern FC manager, whose Aberdeen-based side had a string of strong results before the cancellation, said the prolonged postponement would, in a playing sense, make all the teams lose momentum.

“The current postponement was not great timing for us as we had built up momentum in the league which helped us to be first so now we need to start all over again to gain momentum which is not ideal,” the Southern manager said. “As far as I know, the majority of clubs are doing zoom fitness online, beach training, hiking and running which is pretty much all we can do safely.”

“Many Livelihoods are Directly Connected to Sports”

Dani Cancela, the long term Kitchee mainstay, raised concerns on the number of sports related livelihoods that were in limbo and might be permanently ruined.

“I can talk for myself and I can say it is hard — much harder than in 2020 because back then, the whole world was the same. Currently, we feel that it is only us who are stuck while the rest of the world is moving forward. We have not trained since almost two months ago and we have the Asian Champions League soon.

We know we need to be in our best shape to have any chance in the group stages and now we cannot train and it is hard. It is difficult to feel that you are a professional player when the only thing you can do is run in the street or on the beach without touching a ball.

Sometimes people forget that this is our job and many families in Hong Kong livelihoods are directly connected to sports. If everybody can just keep working in offices and indoor places, where contact is much closer, then I don’t know why we are not allowed to also work and train. It is not simply leisure for some, it is a professional job.”

“For the HK fans, it is terrible. We have stopped playing too many times in the last few seasons and that may have an impact on the fans,” Cancela pointed out that the lack of HK football and live matches could mean a loss of fans and missing out on attracting new fans. “Some of them probably will look into other things and forget local football and that’s something we cannot afford. Clubs are working hard to increase the number of fans and this situation doesn’t help at all.”

“Dynamic Zero Obviously means Zero Football for us”

“I think no matter what, you can never really be prepared for this. You have to take it as it comes just like everyone else has. It’s a difficult time for everyone” Jared Lum of Eastern, said that frustrations stemmed from watching other global leagues back in action after adapting and evolving. “I think the perspective we have to look at it from, as players, is that we have no control over the decisions being made. It’s obviously very difficult to foresee when and if we will restart the season.”

Lum went on to say:

“As players it’s frustrating. Dynamic zero obviously means zero football for us and at the end of the day, it’s Hong Kong football that will be affected. I think the frustration stems from the fact that covid is everywhere but only here in Hong Kong, has football stopped.

You see leagues around the world adapting and continuing to play. On top of this, as footballers, you can only do this (play) for a certain amount of time so, losing half a season or more, is a big chunk of time in the career of a footballer. In saying that, it’s not just the football industry that is being uprooted and affected by these policies.”

“The Most Frustrating Part is the Uncertainty”

Matthew Lam of Eastern, said the constant stop and start of the league was emotionally exhausting for players and staff.

“They’ve done a good job at trying to keep us fit and sharp, constantly adapting and working within the restrictions. Before the latest round of restrictions, we were working in small groups, and given plenty of individual training we needed to complete. The fitness side of things is relatively easy to maintain on your own, but obviously not being able to train as a team and on a pitch makes the football side of things really hard.

We try our best not to complain too much – we’re all healthy and haven’t lost as much as a lot of people and businesses have.

I think the most frustrating part is the uncertainty, which again, is not unique to us. We haven’t really heard much from the HKFA, and from what I understand, they haven’t received much information or guidance from the government either. We understand that right now, we aren’t really the priority, so we wait and do our best to stay focused and disciplined in our training.

The implications beyond this season also are questioned, because majority of the players contracts are negotiated on a yearly basis.”

Lam said that some overseas players have not seen their families for an extended period of time and that a delayed season which finishes later would mean the time apart would be even longer.

“It’s also particularly hard on some of the foreign players who have been separated from their families for a long time. If the league is delayed until the summer, a lot of these players miss the chance to visit their families, which takes a huge toll on the mental health of them and their families. Meanwhile, many have no idea whether they will even have a contract for next season, as those conversations with the clubs are understandably delayed and makes planning really difficult.

At the end of the day, we just hope that the government and the HKFA can come up with a plan that gets us back on the pitch, able to complete the season in a covid-safe manner, and make sure this league keeps its Asian spots as we know that’s where a lot of the investment interest comes from.”

With sports facilities shut down, different teams have been adapting to the change again, as best as they can to maintain the physical and emotional health of their staff.

“Being a Footballer is Only One Part of their Identity and They must Engage Fully in Other Areas of Life”

Zesh Rehman said the lack of routine was hard to deal with and he sought to remind players and staff that football is only part of their identity and to embrace other areas of their life while they wait.

“Physically the players are keeping themselves fit and active. Meanwhile, the psychological effects are the routine and daily structure the team have become used to, have gone. This can be difficult to deal with initially but it’s important to remember being a footballer is only one part of their identity and they must engage fully in other areas of life while waiting.”

Cancela said the waiting game was long and painful for all, echoing the sentiment expressed by Lam.

“In terms of Kitchee, who have targets in the Asian Champions League group stages, it is hard. I can’t imagine how it is for those players and staff who are only waiting for domestic football. It is stressful because of the uncertainty and that is the worst part.”

Two years ago, HK professional football continued in a ‘bubble’ and these are some of the following thoughts on how to continue the current 2021 to 2022 season.

Rehman suggested the bubble format again, so that the season can be completed in time. Otherwise, HK football will lag behind again, to the detriment of all vested interests.

“We will need at least 2 weeks before we play as the length of the stoppage could be 2 months by then,” Rehman said. “The logical thing would be to play in a bubble like we did last season.”

“Professional Football Should be Treated as It Is: A Job”

Cancela said those who made a livelihood in sports should be allowed to earn a living and, hence, an income stream.

“Professional football should be treated as it is: a job, and therefore we should be allowed to do it.

I understand that, at this stage, thinking about people coming to the stadiums is a bit naïve, even though within the vaccination pass it should not be a problem. At least for the athletes, we should be able to train and play even behind closed doors.

But if that’s not possible, at least have a clear path to follow, which would allow the clubs to plan their strategy accordingly. What’s not possible is that we just sit and wait every two weeks and see if we can or can’t.”

If the season cannot be finished, it is also unclear which teams can qualify for the continental competitions.

“There are the Asian Champions League, AFC Cup and HK club competitions to take part in and complete,” Cancela said. “So if we don’t start soon there is no way we can end the league on time.”

“It’s Going to Get to a Stage Where Decisions Have to Be Made about Continuing the League”

Jared Lum said there was still uncertainty on how the season could be completed as the previous Hong Kong ‘bubble’ had flaws and now a lot of players have part time jobs to make ends meet and less flexible schedules.

“In regards to what would be a safe and logical way for the season to restart and continue, your guess is as good as mine. Unless policies change there is not much that can be done. The bubble situation we adopted last year had a lot of holes in it and I don’t think it would work, especially with clubs such as HKFC being semi-pro and players around the league working other jobs just to make do.

It’s going to get to a stage where decisions have to be made about continuing the league. The issues such as the expiration of players contracts, teams leaving to play AFC tournaments and international breaks make it all the more difficult.”

Lum acknowledged that everyday life in Hong Kong has been severely impacted and he hoped everything in HK would be back to normal soon.

“It’s an extremely difficult time for football and life in HK and hopefully we can get to the other side without major casualties. It was a fight to get 8 teams together to play this season and stopping and possibly canceling the league will make it all the more difficult next season as well.

Maybe it is time for that greater bay league after all.”

“Teams Need to Expect to Play 3 Games a Week”

Matthew Lam said not playing games could jeopardize Hong Kong’s places in the Asian continental competitions and that teams should play up to three games a week to finish the season in a feasible time.

“On that note, in terms of how the league should resume and finish, I think the most important thing just has to be completing 2 rounds of the league and the FA cup, as those are the competitions that need to be completed to maintain the Asian spots.

I think teams need to expect to play 3 games a week, which is a lot but very doable, and a lot of other leagues operate on that schedule when they need to.

It also means that the Sapling Cup will most likely have to be sacrificed, but with a busy league schedule, I imagine the younger players will still see a lot of minutes.

Hopefully the government is able to see that the HKPL and the associated jobs and meaning to Hong Kong is worth saving, and can work out a plan with the HKFA to compete in some version of a bubble”

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