Clubs threaten to withdraw amidst uncertainty over reopening of venues

Photo: Chris Lau

A glimmer of sunshine peeped through the clouds in a dark week in which Round 1 of the HKFA Cup was postponed once again. At least one club is considering possible withdrawal from the Premier League if venues are not reopened by mid-March.

Due to the ongoing coronavirus epidemic, Leisure and Cultural Services Department venues have remained closed since late January. On Friday, reports emerged that if schools are allowed to resume classes next month, the LCSD will consider reopening some of its venues for Premier League matches to be played behind closed doors.

In response to inquiries, the HKFA stated that it remained in close contact with relevant authorities and are awaiting further information.

Earlier approach to government came up empty

In response to an ultimatum by the ten Premier League clubs to boycott matches, the HKFA sent a delegation to meet with government officials on Tuesday afternoon in order to persuade them to reopen facilities for football. Afterwards, the delegation, which included Chairman Pui Kwan-kay, held a briefing with clubs in Causeway Bay on Tuesday night.

Initial talks with the lower levels of the government, including LCSD officials, did not yield a definitive timeline as to when government venues would reopen.

During the meeting, Pui stressed that he tried to serve as bridge between the Premier League and the government. “I understand clearly the demands of the clubs and I understand that there are a lot of objections to playing at the Football Training Centre, so I will try my best to convey this to the highest levels of the government,” he promised.

“But the government also has their own set of concerns and they need to be accountable to the public, so as of right now, I’m not sure whether we will be successful.”

He claimed that he had reached out to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to express the concerns of the sports industry and hoped that the decision makers will “heed our concerns and reopen the venues for March.”

Commissioner for Sports Yeung Tak-keung told the crowd the government was concerned about the consequences of reopening LCSD venues. If a case of coronavirus transmission occurred during a match at an LCSD venue, they would have a difficult time rationalizing their decision to the public.

Ma Fung-kwok, the Legislative Council member for the Sports, Performing Arts, Culture and Publication constituency, also spoke at the briefing. Summarizing his meeting with Secretary for Home Affairs Ray Lau, he bluntly stated that the reopening of venues is a “non-starter” at the moment.

“(Lau) told me that it’s not because he doesn’t want to. It’s because their top priority must be to contain the epidemic in the city so they must actively discourage any large gathering of people.

“I asked him ‘what’s the risk?’ He responded that even if matches are closed to the public, there’s a risk of contagion – even in the dressing rooms – so from the government’s perspective there’s nothing to gain.”

Ma expressed that keeping venues closed would be bad for the sports industry as some of those affected are not paid unless they work. He suggested to the government that they ought to do more to support the industry, to which government officials concurred, but doubted whether the government had accepted enough responsibility in dealing with the fallout from the epidemic.

Ma raised the point that if the length of the epidemic is unknown, then the government should be more flexible in their attitude instead of taking a “one size fits all” approach.

Clubs considering withdrawal from the Premier League

Speaking to reporters after the event, clubs expressed grave concern over the remainder of the season.

Lee Man chairman Norman Lee hoped that the government will reopen its venues. “Hong Kong football is a business. It’s an expensive business, but one that’s bound by the decisions of the government,” he said. “This is an industry wide problem because our matchday and training venues are all operated by the government.”

“The national team has two World Cup qualifiers in March. Our players need to play in order to maintain their fitness. We can’t do anything right now.

“We have every intention of giving the government a deadline. If the venues are not re-opened by mid-March, then there’s no point in playing (a compressed schedule) to catch up. There’ll have to be some sacrifices made.”

Lee then dropped the biggest bombshell of the night, revealing that one club at the briefing inquired about a clause in the Hong Kong Premier League Competition Regulations & Agreement which would allow clubs to withdraw from the league without penalty.

The clause in question, Sec. Q.1, reads in part that under force majeure, “If by any reason of any event affecting the performance by any party hereto of any provision of this Agreement arising from or attributable to acts, events, omissions or accidents which are beyond the reasonable control of such party…including, without limitation,…epidemic…then such delay or non‐performance shall not be deemed to be a breach of this Agreement…”


Lee Man boss Norman Lee told reporters that at least one club is considering withdrawing from the league. (File Photo/Credit: Gao Si-kei)

Pegasus head coach Peter Man claimed that several clubs were considering withdrawal, but his club would take a more measured approach. Man said that he understood the HKFA’s plan to wait and see if venues will be reopened after 2 March. If not, the clubs will give the government until the 16th at the latest to provide a timeline for reopening.

But Man added, “I am concerned that we will run out of time to finish the season before contracts expire on 31 May. The Regulations are clear that clubs will not be penalized if they withdraw due to an epidemic but everything will depend on the latest developments.”

Eastern head coach and technical director Lee Chi-kin was more pessimistic about the situation.

“We did not a receive a definitive response tonight about the matches in March. Instead, what we got was a clear indication from the government that containing the epidemic trumps all other concerns right now,” Lee told reporters.

“The Commissioner for Sport said he’d fight for our interests but he couldn’t make any promises. Someone rightly asked whether the risk of transmission is that much lower at the FTC than at an LCSD venue?

“The government wants us to stop playing football, if possible, but the HKFA wants to carry on. So the message I got was that the only way to do it is to use private facilities.”

FA Cup Round 1 Postponed

The HKFA announced on Wednesday evening that both HKFA Cup Round 1 matches had been postponed. The matches had been scheduled for Saturday afternoon at the FTC.

Information on new dates was not released.

Earlier, rumours swirled which indicated that three clubs set to play on Saturday had applied for postponement, although Norman Lee denied that his club were one of them. The Lee Man boss maintained that matches should go on ahead in order to avoid indefinite delay.

Lee Chi-kin claimed on Tuesday night that no final decision had been made but did not refute the rumours. He stated his belief that in the spirit of fairness, all matches in a competition should either take place at the FTC or at proper stadiums.

In response to inquiries Tuesday night, the HKFA confirmed that while there were proposals to postpone both of Saturday’s matches, the matches were tentatively scheduled to go on. After further consultation with clubs, a decision was made on Wednesday afternoon to reschedule the matches.

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