League

FIFA spares HKFA’s blushes

Southern

Out of contract players will be eligible to play immediately after FIFA grants an exemption to the HKFA.

The Hong Kong Football Association’s board of directors held a special meeting Wednesday to discuss various issues including the approval of the new Five-Year Strategic Plan, the status of Resources Capital’s application to promote into the Premier League and to reconsider an increase to the foreign quota.

The meeting, which began at 10 am, lasted into the afternoon before reporters were briefed on the topics discussed. Dominating reporters’ questions was the possibility of an exemption from FIFA which would provide relief to players and clubs in Hong Kong after administrative errors created confusion over player registration rules. The HKFA had originally told clubs that players who signed over the summer would be eligible to play immediately, however, a document published on 11 June contradicted this claim. The document also specified that the summer transfer window could not begin until four weeks prior to the close of the 2019-20 season.

Taking the lead in speaking to reporters Wednesday was not chairman Pui Kwan-kay, but rather general secretary Vincent Yuen who will take over as acting CEO following the departure of Paul Woodland. Yuen confirmed that after correspondence with FIFA, the HKFA were successful in gaining an exemption.

“We explained our situation to FIFA and in particular, the fact that in Hong Kong many player contracts expire by the end of June,” he relayed. “They agreed to give us the flexibility to amend our registration window for out of contract players so that any player who is out of contract may be registered by a new club and play immediately, as long as this is done before 21 August.”

A window for clubs to register out of contract players will reopen in early August and close one day prior to the restart of the season.

Under Article 6.1 of FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players, players can only move during two registration periods – colloquially known as “transfer windows” – over the course of a year, as determined by the relevant association. However, the Article also states that, at the discretion of each association, “…a professional whose contract has expired prior to the end of a registration period may be registered outside that registration period” as long as “due consideration is given to the sporting integrity of the relevant competition.”

The HKFA has traditionally taken advantage of this exception, allowing clubs to sign players whose contract had expired prior to the end of a transfer window, more than eight weeks after the close of the window. The winter transfer window this season ended on 29 January; however, clubs could sign free agents until 27 March. FIFA’s exemption allows the HKFA to reinterpret the definition of “a professional whose contract has expired prior to the end of a registration period” to include players who are or will be out of contract this summer.

“As long as the signing club is able to prove that any player they are registering was not under contract with another club at the time of signing, they can play right away,” confirmed Yuen. “Our priorities are to ensure that players can find jobs and that clubs have a sufficient number of players at the restart.”

Additionally, the HKFA has formally applied to FIFA to extend the 2019-20 season until 27 September. Yuen revealed that as a result, the summer transfer window for the 2020-21 season would begin in early September.

The Pink Ribbons are going up

Resources Capital will get their first taste of Premier League play next season. (Credit: Resources Capital)

Resources Capital will play in the Premier League next season after the board of directors approved the club’s bid for promotion. The First Division leaders, who expressed their desire to go up as champions last August, applied for promotion in April despite acknowledging that their application would hinge on an existing Premier League club deciding to drop out. Since that time, Yuen Long and Tai Po have both declared their respective withdrawals from the 2020-21 Premier League.

Yuen declined to specify whether only nine clubs would participate in the top flight next season but confirmed that the HKFA has not received any other applications to promote, at this time.

Foreign quota to be reconsidered

At the last board of directors meeting on 28 May, the board rejected a proposal to increase the foreign quota from the current limit of four on the pitch at any time, to five. Despite this setback, Pegasus chairman Steven Lo, who advocates a temporary, one year change to the policy, suggested that clubs be able to field an additional foreigner, provided that the player has been capped by a nation ranked in the top 100 of FIFA’s rankings, or has previously played in a top league.

The board of directors countered the proposal by suggesting that any additional foreigner must be capped by a nation in the top 50. Yuen announced that the board would defer a decision until after clubs meet next week to debate and vote on the proposal.

“We want to see what the nine clubs have to say,” the general secretary said. “We hope that they’ll clearly state their positions in support or against an increase.”

Forlan is arguably the biggest name ever signed by Kitchee although his impact on the local game was only temporary. (Credit: Kitchee)

The HKFA’s decision to reconsider a change in the quota is based on the desire of the clubs to try and attract recognizable players to Hong Kong in order to provide a short term boost in interest and attendance. At last week’s Premier League meeting, Pui named dropped Mateja Kežman and Nicky Butt as examples of the calibre of players who would have to be signed in order to merit an increase.

In recent years, clubs have been able to sign players who had played for a nation in the top 50, although such players were often South Korean and were never more than fringe players on the national team. Kitchee were notably successful in luring former World Cup Golden Ball winner Diego Forlan to join on a four month contract worth $300,000 USD in early 2018.

Those doubting Hong Kong clubs’ ability to attract former stars of the game to come to the city may be buoyed by one report which claims that in the past two years, agents representing players such as Milan Baroš and Alberto Gilardino have contacted Premier League clubs directly in order to gauge their interest.

The proposition, nevertheless, remains a risky one even without considering the effects of a pandemic on fans’ desire to gather in large groups. Attendance at Kitchee’s home domestic matches did not increase significantly during the period in which Forlan was signed, although attendance at Kitchee’s away and neutral site matches increased by an average of 400 fans or 32%.

Independent Premier League remains long term goal

The board approved the HKFA’s new Five-Year Strategic Plan which will be submitted to the Home Affairs Bureau’s Football Task Force. The FTF is expected to meet on Friday to discuss the plan.

The HKFA receives $25 million a year through the Arts and Sport Development Fund which is used to pay the salaries of individuals such as the CEO and the men’s national team head coach. Pui admitted in an interview with the South China Morning Post on Monday that there is “no Plan B” if the government declines to renew its funding.

Although the previous round of funding expired in March, the decision was postponed until July due to the pandemic. The HKFA has been able to secure money form other sources to continue its operations in the short term but without government funding, Pui claims that the organization may be forced to lay off more than 40 employees starting next month, including Mixu Paatelainen.

Representatives from the HKFA were called to testify before the Legislative Council on three separate occasions over May and June after a scathing report by the Audit Commission was published in April. The organization was admonished for lacking transparency, poor attendance records of its directors, failure to record minutes of HKFA committee meetings, along with various other criticisms. During the three sessions, members of LegCo from both the pan-Democracy and pro-Beijing camps questioned the HKFA over their lack of accountability and mismanagement.

Yuen testifies before LegCo on 5 June 2020. (Credit: Screenshot/LegCo Webcasting System)

Yuen stated that while the contents of the Five-Year Plan did not change after the HKFA’s appearances before LegCo, the general secretary accepted that the organization had “learned a lot” and pledged to conduct an internal review to improve any governance related issues. He added, candidly, “In the past, our regulations were left up to interpretation. Going forward, everything will be black and white.

“Everyone needs to have clear directions on what to do or what a given committee’s responsibilities are. This will be a good thing. I hope that by the end of the year, we will have a plan in place to present to the public”

With regards to R&F’s letter to fellow Premier League clubs on Saturday expressing their desire to lay the groundwork for an independent Premier League, Yuen responded that this idea was first raised back in 2015.

“Back then, we discussed it for the first time but the clubs decided that, in the short term, this was not something that was feasible, so they didn’t bring it up again,” recalled Yuen. “The HKFA’s charter actually includes the establishment of an autonomous Premier League as one of its goals but there’s no specific time frame.”

The general secretary reiterated that this remained a long term goal of the HKFA but the organization would first need to hire consultants to draft a feasibility report.

“First, we need to find a source of money from somewhere and then we’ll need a feasibility report because the last time we talked about this, we found that (an independent league) would cost several millions of dollars a year to run,” he continued. “I’m open to hiring consultants to do a report because we have other projects that we want to pursue.

“We want to construct satellite training centres outside of Tseung Kwan O in order to lessen the demands on the Football Training Centre. Both of these are projects worthy of study so it might make more sense for us to commission a report if we can expand the scope of the study.”

Yuen believes that the establishment of an independent league would not alleviate problems related to the availability of stadiums and other support facilities. He stated that additional funds would help solve some of the problems but the HKFA has a mandate to allocate its resources in a manner which promotes the advancement of all levels of local football.

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