The number of Premier League teams for next season now stands at seven after HKFC’s inclusion was confirmed by the board on Thursday. The league could add an eighth team if plans for a U23 team are approved next week.
Last season’s First Division champions HKFC are going back up to the Premier League after a four-year absence. The club confirmed their intention to accept the HKFA’s invitation to promote on Wednesday evening and were approved by the HKFA Board of Directors on Thursday afternoon.
The embattled Premier League, which has seen Pegasus and Happy Valley withdraw over the offseason, now sits at seven teams with barely a month to go until the 2021-22 season kicks off.
At a press conference following Thursday’s board meeting, HKFA CEO Joe Tam stated that an exemption to the foreign quota would be made for HKFC, whose squad consists mostly of non-Hong Kong passport holders. At the same time, the CEO announced a planned three-year “adjustment period” for the club and hoped to slowly raise the minimum number of locals.
“In the first season, they will be required to register at least nine local players and use at least three of them in matches,” he said. “I hope that in the second or third year, we can make it five and gradually increase the number from there.”
The CEO added that in addition to the quota, all players must be signed as full time professionals, thus ending HKFC’s century-old policy of amateurism. In 2018, HKFC had asked for a three-year exemption from relegation in exchange for professionalization but were rebuffed by the HKFA.
“(HKFC) are capable of being competitive in the Premier League,” HKFA chairman Pui Kway-kay believes. “They’ve got their own stadium and collect income from membership fees but it’s just that, in the past, they didn’t want to (transition into a professional club). I have confidence that they can find the money to do it.”
Lead by head coach Tony Hamilton-Bram, HKFC won all 13 of their matches during last season’s abbreviated First Division season, whilst conceding only four times. However, the club have historically struggled in the top flight, usually finding themselves near or at the bottom of the table at the end of the season.
More than half of last season’s squad are 30 years-of-age or older, and much of the squad work in white collar professions where they can expect to earn a lot more than as professional footballers. How many of these players will continue with the club in the Premier League next season is a mystery given their understandable reluctance to endure the demands of a professional football.
U23 team to compete in Premier League next season?
Apart from HKFC, there have been rumours that one other team will join the Premier League next season in order to maintain the league’s eight team structure. Indications as recently as last week were that First Division club North District and Second Division club Tuen Mun were exploring the possibility of going up, although it appears that neither club are prepared to promote this season.
Pui had revealed to reporters on Wednesday that plans for the HKFA to re-establish a developmental side, similar to the HK08 team which competed in the top flight between 2005-07, were underway. On Thursday, the chairman said that the organization were exploring ways to fund the team, with the deadline on a decision expected to come at a special board meeting next Thursday morning, the 26th.
“Part of the rationale is that we want to provide a landing spot for young players to develop and play in the Premier League,” he said.
The chairman acknowledged that the plan was controversial and that the name of the team, as well as various technical details, still needed to be resolved. But, Pui added, that he had heard from interested sponsors who were willing to step up and therefore, he did not believe that funding would be a significant roadblock.
“Time is running out, so we’ve set a deadline for next week to decide whether it’ll be seven or eight teams (in this year’s Premier League),” he said.
Carlos Anton appointed as new technical director
Former Hong Kong academy head coach, Carlos Anton, has been named as Hong Kong’s technical director, replacing Thor Árnason whose contract ended on 30 June. The hiring is controversial in some circles as Anton was involved in a disciplinary incident two years ago.
In August 2019, the Hong Kong U18’s traveled to Thailand for a training camp in order to prepare for matches later in the year. However, some members of the squad – including players and coaches – were caught fooling around at a bar whilst wearing Hong Kong branded team wear. As the legal drinking age in Thailand is 20, the team had violated both team rules and local laws.
After Anton was notified of the incident, the coach furiously punished the players who were involved by forcing them to run laps late into the night. Controversially, it is believed that Anton threw water bottles at the offenders, which later led to complaints by the players’ parents.
The HKFA eventually decided to put Anton on gardening leave until his contract expired in March 2020.
In the press release announcing the technical director’s hire, Tam praised Anton’s acumen, wisdom, leadership, and his “understanding of football culture in Hong Kong”, noting the latter’s job as the HKFA’s Elite Development coach from 2016 to 2018. But when pressed by the media regarding whether Anton’s departure in 2020 was a mistake, Pui was declined to answer directly.
“At the time, there were issues and mistakes were made, but the board have discussed this incident multiple times and forgiven (Anton),” the chairman said on Thursday, noting that Anton had received multiple letters of support. “Whether you rarely make mistakes, never make mistakes, or make mistakes all the time, it doesn’t mean that you’re not capable of change. We’ve thoroughly evaluated his candidacy through multiple angles and determined that he is the right man for the job.”
Two years on from the incident, Anton returns to Hong Kong as technical director, which means that he will inevitably re-encounter some of the players who were involved in the incident. However, Tam reiterated that the incident was isolated and emphasized that Anton had the support of the players.
“I won’t dwell on the past,” he said, adding that Anton bested 70 other applicants for the post. “I believe that he will help the HKFA and the development of local football. Everyone has their own strengths, and everyone will have their moments of weakness, but I hope that everyone will look forwards not backwards.”
Anton will have a hand in selecting the next head coach of the Hong Kong team after Mixu Paatelainen departed the role in June. Tam revealed that the post has received over 100 applications and the HKFA will begin the screening and interview process next week.
Pui opined that the hiring of a new head coach was not an “urgent priority” as Hong Kong are not scheduled to play again until next February, despite the presence of three international windows that will come to pass until that time.