Matches for Group J of the AFC Cup could be postponed in order to accommodate the Premier League’s championship and relegation rounds.
Representatives of the eight Premier League clubs have unanimously agreed to maintain the triple round-robin format, meaning that the planned championship and relegation rounds at the end of the season will go on ahead. The decision was made after a meeting of the clubs at the Hong Kong Football Association’s headquarters on Monday morning.
HKFA General Secretary Vincent Yuen told reporters after the meeting that the HKFA plans to ask the AFC to postpone the matches for Group J of the AFC Cup. The Group, which features Premier League clubs Eastern and Lee Man, was due to take place in Hong Kong between 14-20 May. The first round of matches for the championship and relegation groups was set to begin shortly thereafter on the 22nd.
“If we can push back the AFC Cup, we can free up dates to complete the local season by the end of May,” Yuen explained. “Because of considerations in regard to typical [summer] weather conditions and player contracts, we believe that this is the easiest solution to resolve the problem.”
Because of the reduction in the number of clubs in the Premier League this season to eight, the HKFA and the clubs had agreed to split the clubs into two groups of four after 14 matches and play an extra three matches. After the season was paused due to the fourth wave of the pandemic, the clubs agreed to cancel the FA Cup and the Senior Shield in order to accommodate the league season.
However, problems arose when the AFC decided to postpone the Champions League group stage involving East Asian Region teams from the mid-April to early May schedule until late June. This meant that Kitchee, who are Hong Kong’s only representative in the Champions League, would face a scheduling conflict.
Hong Kong, which also bid to host the remainder of their group’s World Cup qualifying matches at home, lost out on the rights to Bahrain. The Hong Kong team plays its final match on 15 June, and players travelling back from Bahrain may be forced to quarantine upon return.
Yuen revealed on Monday that the clubs have agreed to two plans in order to facilitate the final stage of the season. Plan A was to seek a postponement of the AFC Cup group stage which, the Secretary argued, would give everyone involved more time to prepare for the event. According to the Secretary, the government has yet to formally approve a quarantine exemption for foreign clubs travelling into Hong Kong for the event.
According to sources, it is believed that the HKFA’s Competition Committee have already made inquiries to the AFC about a postponement and received an open minded response from the governing body.
But, if the HKFA are unable to secure a delay, Yuen told reporters that Plan B is to play the relegation round in June and the championship round in July. Although relegation has been suspended for the season, the clubs agreed to complete a relegation round on the principle of “fairness”.
“The clubs in the relegation group want to finish the season as quickly as possible,” he relayed. “So even if clubs are missing players due to quarantine, the clubs have agreed to play without those players.
“The championship group would then take place in July, but clubs first need to figure out contract related matters. However, if clubs are unable to resolve these matters, the HKFA will not force them to continue to play.”
Most player contracts end will expire in late June to coincide with the end of the season. However, last year, FIFA ruled that players and clubs would be allowed to extend their contracts until the end date of the season in leagues which have been disrupted by the pandemic.
HKFA Vice Chairman Matthew Wong previously committed to fund a $200,000 cash prize for the winners of the relegation group. On Monday, Yuen announced that Wong will pay an extra $10,000 bonus to the man of the match in each relegation group game.
Eastern head coach and director Lee Chi-kin said that he was pleased with the “positive” talks and stated that a postponement of the AFC Cup would give the four clubs involved greater certainty.
“We are at the end of the month and we’ve yet to receive a formal response from the government about the final protocol for hosting the tournament,” he said. “The best solution may be to ask for a postponement from the AFC and finish the third round-robin. Foreign clubs need [entry visas] before they can book their air tickets. Instead of continuing to wait, why not just postpone it?”
Lee added that he was pleased that the other seven clubs agreed to continue on with the final stage, in spite of the challenges. “It is important that everyone is rowing in the same direction,” the coach said. “A professional league, regardless whether we’re talking about the HKFA or the players, needs everyone to be on the same page in regard to finishing the season.
“The format was agreed to at the beginning of the season, so I’m pleased that everyone has agreed to honour that agreement. Although the implementation will be a challenge, at least everyone’s on the same page.”
Rangers director Philip Lee stated that many clubs hoped to complete the season by the end of May. He believes that it is not prudent to postpone the league further due to contract issues and the threat of another possible wave of the pandemic.