League

Clubs remain skeptical over FIFA exemption

HKFA

Clubs give the green light to increase the foreign quota, vote against the HKFA’s cup competition rules, and remain uncertain over whether FIFA will allow summer signings to play. Plus, a small note on South China.

Premier League clubs remain uncertain as to whether their summer signings will be allowed to participate in the restart about a week after being told the affirmative by the HKFA. Representatives from seven clubs including Kitchee, Pegasus, R&F, Rangers, Lee Man, Southern and Resources Capital convened a meeting on Tuesday afternoon to discuss several issues, after which the clubs resolved to seek greater clarity about the rules for the transfer window.

The controversy began on 11 June when FIFA released a document stating that the summer transfer window could not open until there were four weeks or less remaining in the 2019-20 season, and that any player who transfers during that period would not be eligible to play until the 2020-21 season. As clubs had already begun making plans under the HKFA’s directive that players would be able to play right away, many clubs were furious with the organization. Kitchee president Ken Ng blamed the error on a mistranslation whilst R&F general manager Tyler Kwok went further, calling for the remainder of the season to be cancelled.

The problem appeared to have been solved last Wednesday when general secretary and acting CEO, Vincent Yuen, provided copies of a correspondence with FIFA which seemed to indicate that Hong Kong would receive an exemption. The exemption would grant the HKFA the power to reinterpret Article 6.1 of FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players to allow any player whose contract had expired over the summer to be registered outside of an official registration period (transfer window). As the vast majority of transfers in Hong Kong involve free agents, this would allow clubs to proceed as if this were a normal summer.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Ng says that the clubs examined the correspondence with FIFA and did not believe that FIFA had permitted the HKFA to reinterpret Article 6.1. “The Legal Committee chairman has already sent an email to Vincent, telling him that there isn’t sufficient evidence of an exemption,” he began. “To be honest, we all hope we’re wrong because we want our new signings to be able to play.

“We looked at the Legal Committee’s interpretation of the documents and of course, we’ve all read (the documents) ourselves. Our conclusion is that the HKFA’s interpretation is wrong: FIFA wants to protect the integrity of the competitions that are still ongoing, so they’ll only allow clubs who lose players to free agency to plug those gaps with youth or academy players.

“We have a simple request to the HKFA: ask FIFA to clarify – yes or no – whether players who transfer over the summer can play right away?”

Ng stated that he was skeptical that the HKFA had gained an exemption, referring to the English Premier League as an example. “Hong Kong is a minnow in world football, so why would we get an exemption?” he asked. “Such a decision would have ramifications for the rest of the world.

“Take the EPL for instance – they’re continuing to play beyond 1 July. Do you really think that players in Hong Kong would be allowed to play right away but not in England? Come on.

“Again, we hope that the HKFA are right but unfortunately, there’s no evidence for that. Even the chairman of the Legal Affairs Committee has told the HKFA to either provide that evidence or retract their statement.”

Could players in the Hong Kong Premier League transfer and play right away whilst players such as Timo Werner must wait until next season to play for Chelsea? Ken Ng doesn’t think so. (Credit: RB Leipzig)

Foreign quota to increase

At the previous meeting of Premier League clubs, a proposal was sent to the board of directors to reconsider the foreign quota for the upcoming season. The clubs had proposed that the quota be amended to allow clubs to register up to six foreign players of any nationality and play a maximum of five at a time, provided that one of the foreigners had either played in a top league or had been capped by a nation in the top 100. The board countered that proposal by stating that such a player must be capped by a nation in the top 50.

On Tuesday, clubs voted 6-1 in favour of the proposal and to send it back to the board for final approval. Lee Man administrative manager Chow Man-kin was the lone vote against the proposal, reasoning that the league should exist to give local players more opportunities. He, nevertheless, accepted the result of the vote and later confirmed that his club would keep an open mind towards signing a marquee foreigner.

Under the terms of the proposal, a marquee foreigner must be capped by a national team ranked in the top 50 of FIFA’s rankings released on 11 June 2020, or have played at least one season in any of the top 50 leagues in the world.

Pegasus chairman Steven Lo, who lead the effort in favour of the increase, believes that this idea is crucial to growing the game in Hong Kong at this particular time.

“Look, the facts are that quality local players are few and far between,” he explained. “Simultaneously, the standard of the league remains low, attendance has been dropping over the past two seasons, there’s a pandemic going on, and there’s constant negative news about local football – all of these things will stagnate the league so of course, attendance will decrease as a result. We have to do something to stimulate the local scene otherwise, we’re going to be playing every game in front of 300-500 people.”

Lo also slammed critics of the proposal who suggested that allowing more foreigners to play will come at the expense of developing local talent. “Next season’s Sapling Cup will continue to have a double round robin group stage so young players will get their chances then. No league anywhere in the world exists purely to develop players. If you don’t agree, why don’t you stop charging admission and just develop players?”

In regards to rumours about a possible return to Yuen Long Stadium for Pegasus, the chairman stated that it was “too early to say” and turned the focus back onto the HKFA. “With regard to next season, we haven’t made a decision at this time. We sent a letter a month or two ago to the HKFA explaining to them that our outlay is quite substantial, and if the matches aren’t entertaining, and we can only attract several hundred people a game to turn up, then we’re going to have to think hard about whether we want to keep doing this.

“We’re going to wait and see if they’ll agree to loosen the quota, and then we’ll contemplate our next step.”

Ng agreed with Lo’s suggestion that local football needs a stimulus. The Kitchee president recalled what the signing of former Uruguayan international Diego Forlan meant for the club’s finances.

“When you talk about the Forlan experience, we certainly had to spend a fair bit of money just to lure him here but eventually, we made that money back,” he said. “I can even remember, back in the day, when I refereed a match between Bulova and Sea Bee. Bulova had (Coventry legend) Tommy Hutchinson at one end and Sea Bea had (Manchester United legend) George Best at the other end. I remember vividly how lively that atmosphere was.

“We all want to do something to stimulate local football after the pandemic so that we can bring back that type of buzz.”

Before Forlan, there were even better ex-Man United players who played in Hong Kong. (Credit: Kitchee)

Ng also revealed that the clubs at the meeting had voted against allowing players who signed during the winter transfer window to represent more than one club in a cup competition. The HKFA had decided to make a one-time exception to this rule, owing to the fact that some clubs may experience greater turnover than others over the summer. Eastern, who stood to benefit from the HKFA’s ruling, did not vote as they did not send a representative to the meeting.

Ng clarified that the decision, much like the foreign quota, must be ratified by the board.

A little note on South China

Readers of Offside may recall an article published on 12 June which referenced a rumour regarding a mystery First Division side who were interested in joining the top flight. The rumour stated that the club were in mid-table position in the First Division, prior to the cancellation of the season. Although South China did not fit this description, this did not dissuade readers from speculating whether the Caroliners were the mystery club.

While the rumour has since died down, the journalist who first floated the idea had something to say about South China’s plans with regard to any potential return to the top flight. He claims that over the past two seasons, various businessmen have approached the club with an interest in bringing the Caroliners back to the Premier League. However, the club have rebuffed such offers because they did not wish to be promoted without sporting merit. The club will only entertain the thought of going up if they can earn the right to promote via the HKFA’s rules.

Accroding to Section C.3 of the Premier League Competition Regulations, the champions of the First Division have the right of first refusal to promote into the Premier League. Therefore, fans who want to see South China return to the professional ranks should cheer for them to win the First Division.

(Credit: South China)

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