Premier League clubs are split on whether to continue the season, leaving the final decision with the HKFA Board of Directors next week.
The status of the 2019-20 season remains in doubt after the six remaining clubs met via video conferencing with the HKFA on Thursday afternoon. The meeting, which lasted two hours, failed to result in any consensus after various proposals and ideas were discussed. The HKFA had planned to decide on whether to go ahead with the restart by this Saturday but will now delay a final decision until an emergency board meeting can be held next Wednesday or Thursday.
HKFA chairman Pui Kwan-kay revealed that the clubs were split down the middle on the question of carrying on with the season. Three clubs – Kitchee, Eastern and Southern – wanted to continue to wait and see if the season could be resumed while another three clubs – R&F, Lee Man and Happy Valley – were in favour of cancelling the rest of the season.
“Three clubs wanted to carry on because they wanted to qualify for Asia through the league,” he explained. “The other three wanted to abandon the season because they don’t want to deal with the uncertainty over when they could return to training.”
Additionally, the chairman conceded that the chances of a restart in the month of August were slim owing to the fact that clubs had no place to train nor play. The Leisure and Cultural Services Department’s facilities and venues have been closed since 15 July and the HKFA’s Football Training Centre has also been closed since mid-July.
“I agree with the clubs that it’s unrealistic to ask the government to reopen venues in the short term,” Pui said. “I hope that, between the clubs, there can be some mutual understanding.”
Although there are 14 league matches left to be played, there are also three cup finals on the docket as well. The chairman stated that the five clubs involved in those finals agreed that those matches must be played before the start of the next season.
“The bosses have invested a lot of money so it’s understandable that they want some silverware at year’s end,” he continued. “It shouldn’t be a problem to arrange the finals before the start of next season.”
Contrasting opinions on restart reveals differing priorities
Southern president Matthew Wong attended the meeting and told reporters afterwards that he believes that the season could be wrapped up in a timely fashion once venues are opened.
“If the situation improves, you could play out the rest of the season in three to four weeks and crown a champion for the 2019-20 season,” he stated. “This would be the most legitimate way to determine a representative for Asian competition next season.”
Asked about his position on the restart, Wong, who is also an HKFA vice-chairman, stated unequivocally, “As an investor, after such a difficult season, of course I want to try and finish it, and if we can qualify for Asia, that’s even better. But everything depends on the situation at hand. I agree (with Pui) that the chances of an August restart are very slim.”
Lee Man head coach Chan Hiu-ming stated that his club had a different opinion on a possible restart.
“If you continue to indefinitely postpone the restart of the season, you will invariably affect arrangements for next season – not to mention the fact that there are clubs waiting in the wings for next season to begin,” he said. “Look, every club who agreed to carry on this season wants there to be a restart, but our priorities are different. Our bottom line is that we don’t want to (negatively) impact the 2020-21 season.”
Lessons to be learned from overseas?
Pui mentioned that during the meeting, Dr. Patrick Yung, the HKFA’s medical consultant, raised the possibility of placing players in a bubble in order to facilitate a safe restart of the season.
“Dr. Yung suggested that we could study the feasibility of doing what overseas leagues such as the Chinese Super League are doing,” the chairman relayed. “Players are first tested to ensure that they’re virus-free and then they’re isolated in hotels to minimize their contact with the outside world, aside from training sessions and matches. They would be tested regularly to ensure that they remain virus-free.”
As for whether Hong Kong could copy this strategy, Pui emphasized that more time was needed to think carefully about the many details that would entail.
“First, the government would need to review and approve the use of venues and hotels,” he stated. “Secondly, this would require a lot of money…possibly government funding, so there are lots of factors to consider. The HKFA needs time to study this idea so we can’t make any rash decisions right now.” The chairman added that he would, in fact, discuss the idea with the Board of Directors next week.
When asked about a possible bubble, Chan stated that he did not believe it was feasible.
“Hong Kong football clubs, generally, do not own their own training grounds,” he argued. “Even though we’d thought previously that the HKFA could keep the FTC open (during the pandemic), it turns out that the Environmental Protection Department had the power to shut it down, so even that’s not untouchable.
“Besides, there are too many unknowns. How will the players react to being under extended quarantine? Dr. Yung referred to the Hong Kong Sports Institute several times today as an example of how the players could live and train in an isolated environment from the outside world. My response was that it wasn’t a valid comparison because those athletes are accustomed to living in residences.
“We also have to bear in mind the cost of creating a bubble. This is a major consideration.”