The Leisure and Cultural Services Department announced Friday that its cultural and recreational facilities would not reopen until 2 March at the earliest. This comes on the heels of an ultimatum by Premier League clubs to either allow matches at LCSD venues or face a boycott.
The LCSD had first announced the suspension of recreation and sports programmes on 28 January in response to the “Preparedness and Response Plan for Novel Infectious Disease of Public Health Significance” being raised to Emergency Response Level. This move was intended to mitigate any transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus by preventing crowds from gathering in large groups.
The Department later announced on 1 February that it would close all its facilities until 17 February at the earliest.
Matches behind closed doors
The move is the latest in the number of setbacks for the Hong Kong Football Association.
In January, the HKFA agreed to cancel the Lunar New Year Cup due to the coronavirus outbreak. On 3 February, the HKFA held a meeting with all ten Hong Kong Premier League clubs where it was agreed that all remaining Sapling Cup matches as well as the HKFA Cup Round 1 would be rescheduled to be played behind closed doors at the Jockey Club Football Training Centre (FTC) in February.
The two rounds of Premier League matches scheduled for February would be postponed until March. The league would then resume with a single match between Lee Man and Kitchee on 1 March before all clubs would play the following weekend.
The HKFA agreed during the meeting to ask the LCSD whether its facilities could be used for March, even if matches were to be closed door. Chairman Pui Kwan-kay was optimistic that venues would be reopened, stating a necessity to “step on the accelerator” to conclude the season before the end of May. This is due to the fact that most player and coach contracts in Hong Kong expire on 31 May.
However, within Premier League circles, some had privately expressed concern about the FTC’s ability to handle professional matches.
On Monday, Pegasus chairman Steven Lo publicly blasted the HKFA’s “lack of initiative” to pressure the government to reopen its facilities while lambasting the entire situation. He said, “As an interim measure due to the outbreak of the epidemic, we can accept the arrangements reluctantly but…we would become a laughing stock if we continue the whole season like this.
“If we’re to play games behind closed doors due to health concerns, we should play at proper venues without fans in attendance. Do you think the English Premier League would play their games at their training grounds if a similar epidemic situation arose in England?
“We are running a professional team and we must pay the players but we end up playing matches behind closed doors at a training venue. If this cannot change, I would suggest we call off the entire season.”
On Tuesday, Commissioner for Sports Yeung Tak-keung, attended the Kitchee-Rangers match. When asked by reporters about the reopening of venues for March, he was non-committal.
Clubs issue ultimatum
The situation came to a head on Thursday night, during an emergency meeting where representatives from all ten Premier League clubs were in attendance. All clubs later voted in favour of a boycott at the beginning of March if they were not allowed to return to LCSD venues, regardless of whether the matches would be closed or open door.
After the meeting, Lo stated that the clubs would email the HKFA about the details and request a response by next Wednesday. He added, “Even if we have to play behind closed doors, it won’t be a problem because the risk of transmission will be reduced. We will still lose money, but we won’t mind because at least we’re playing in higher quality facilities.
“We had hoped that (pursuant to the meeting on 3 February) the HKFA would fight on our behalf but it is now mid-February and they haven’t met with us since. This is not for personal benefit, rather, this is the minimum we expect as clubs.”
Rangers’ director Philip Lee, added, “I hope that this ultimatum will bring attention to the situation…after the Sapling Cup is over, the league will resume. Will the LCSD let us into their stadiums? Who has the responsibility to liaison with them?
“If the LCSD won’t give us stadiums to use, then we’ll stop playing. Let’s see what the government’s response will be.”
Players back the ultimatum
On Friday, Pegasus defender and assistant coach Chan Wai Ho expressed his support for the action taken by the clubs. “The dressing rooms are so small that you practically can’t move around,” he said.
“The pitches are holding up for now but they’re quite far from the dressing rooms so at halftime, we just stay on the pitch. We can’t use the toilet.
“I rarely see the football community so united, so I think there’s a silver lining in all this. The demands (of the clubs) are quite reasonable – they only want the LCSD to open a few venues for us, even if it’s closed door.
“It shouldn’t be too much to ask.”