For the first time since 2001, the league will be split into a championship and a relegation group.
The HKFA have announced a series of reforms aimed at increasing the number of matches played by top flight clubs. After deliberations, it was decided that league would be split into two groups after 14 matches, and that the HKFA Cup would consist of a group stage for the first time ever.
As Offside has informed our readers previously, the AFC requires clubs to have played at least 27 matches in the prior season in order to be eligible for Champions League play. On Tuesday, the HKFA acknowledged for the first time that it had been in discussions with clubs about increasing the number of matches.
Although there was a general consensus that the top flight schedule needed to be expanded, coaches disagreed on the best way to do it. According to sources, the HKFA presented clubs with three proposals:
- Introduce a triple round-robin whereby each team would play every other team thrice – once at home, once away and once at a neutral venue. This would increase the minimum number of matches per team to 29.
- Separate the top four and the bottom four teams into a championship group and relegation group after every team has played each other – home and away. Both groups would then play a single round-robin, with the championship group playing for the title and the relegation group playing to avoid relegation.
The HKFA Cup would also be changed into a group stage format, with teams split into two groups. After a single round-robin, the top two in each group would then advance to the semi-finals. This would increase the minimum number of matches per team to 27.
- The league would retain its double round robin format. The HKFA Cup, on the other hand, would be changed into a single round robin format with all eight teams playing each other once. This would increase the minimum number of matches to 28.
Lee Man head coach Chan Hiu-ming remarked on Thursday that it was “unusual” how the league and cup formats were still undetermined even as coaches were asked to participate in the league’s media day to promote the season. He added that he was in favour of Option 1.
Kitchee head coach Alex Chu stated that he was open to the idea, but worried that teams who had nothing to play for near the end of the season would rotate players more heavily, which would affect the title race. Hence, he implied that his club was in favour of Option 2.
Rangers co-head coach Lai Ka-fai said that his club was also leaning towards Option 2, but his rationale was that with only seven possible opponents for each team, the competitiveness of the league may become diluted if teams faced each other too frequently. “If the HKFA Cup were to copy the Sapling Cup’s format and have a group stage before the knockouts begin, then you can also increase both the number of matches and the competitiveness of each match,” he proposed. “More matches during the season will allow players to play more games. That is our hope at Rangers.”
But Chan disagreed with both coaches, first by countering that if teams decide to field weaker teams near the back end of the season, they will only be tarnishing their own reputations. Second, he claimed that it would be “inappropriate” for the HKFA Cup format to be changed since the matchups for the quarterfinal had already been drawn.
It is understood that in addition to Lee Man, Eastern, Happy Valley and Resources Capital also supported Option 1 while Kitchee, Rangers and Pegasus supported Option 2. Southern expressed that they were agnostic. Despite a slim majority supporting Option 1, the HKFA decided implement Option 2 as they believed that it would lead to the greatest amount of excitement. The league, which had been run under a double round-robin format since 2001, will revert back to a championship-relegation group format for the first time since the 2000-21 season.
HKFA chairman Pui Kwan-kay revealed to reporters that during the meeting, Rangers director Philip Lee was concerned about the intensity of matches in the relegation group. In response, Pui stated that Matthew Wong, chairman of Southern and the convener of the meeting, would personally contribute $200,000 towards a cash prize for the winner of the relegation group.
The chairman added that he expects the championship and relegation group matches to be held at neutral venues – such as Hong Kong Stadium – so that no team would have an advantage. As for whether points from the first 14 matches would be carried over to the final stage, Pui stated that this would be determined at a later date.
Matches to be held behind closed doors
In response to questions about the reopening of stadiums, Pui explained that although the total number of people allowed in the stadium during matches would be increased to 240, matches would remain closed to spectators until government approval is received. Although matches for the first three weeks would be behind closed doors, the HKFA confirmed on Friday that it would use funds from FIFA’s COVID-19 Relief Plan to fund broadcasts of all 15 matches.
Earlier, the clubs had reached a compromise with the HKFA to postpone the start of the league campaign until 14 November at the earliest, and instead, schedule Sapling Cup group stage matches for the first three weeks of the season. However, Pegasus have asked the HKFA to postpone their league matches due to the fact that their foreigners have yet to arrive in Hong Kong.
Once matches begin, it is expected that Kitchee and Eastern will share tenancy at Mong Kok Stadium. Southern, Lee Man and Pegasus will return to Abderdeen Sports Ground, Tseung Kwan O Sports Ground and Yuen Long Stadium, respectively. Happy Valley will move to Sham Shui Po Sports Ground, Rangers will move to Hammer Hill Road Sports Ground and the new boys, Resources Capital, will play at Tsing Yi Sports Ground.
Marquee foreign player rules clarified
Earlier in the summer, the HKFA’s Board of Directors approved the marquee foreign player rule which allows clubs to field an addition foreigner on the pitch under certain conditions. These conditions were that the player must be capped by a nation ranked in the top 50 of FIFA’s rankings as of June 2020 or have played in the top flight of any of the top 50 nations. Although the former is straight forward, the latter is more confusing.
On Friday, the HKFA clarified the qualifications for the latter route. First, the organization stated that the marquee players must have previously appeared in a minimum of one league or cup match of a top 50 nation. Second, it is up to clubs to submit relevant documents to the HKFA which prove a player’s eligibility, such as a copy of the player’s contract at the time, information on a national association’s website or information from the website of a particular club.
Uncertainty for former R&F players
The future prospects for R&F players remain unclear at the moment as the players continue to seek a mutually acceptable terms from club management in order to terminate their contracts.
A group of 12 players met with HKFA General Secretary Vincent Yuen last Monday in order to seek assistance in their dispute with the club. At the meeting, Yuen told the players that although the club did not intend to participate in competitions next season, both their registration to the club and their contracts with the club remain valid, so long as R&F (HK) Soccer Limited remains a business. Accordingly, R&F players who wished to join another club must receive an International Transfer Certificate from R&F. But, the three players who were not registered by R&F for the restart – Jared Lum, Fung Hing-wa and Tsui Wang-kit – could obtain a valid ITC from their former clubs, prior to joining to R&F.
There are other legal hurdles that remain for R&F players. As long as each player remains under contract with R&F, they continue to be entitled to their full salaries, in spite of the club’s offer to pay out each player their salary for November in exchange for termination. For any of the players to join another club, they must first terminate their contract with R&F. Any club who may be interested in signing an R&F player cannot do so until their contractual situation with their former club has been resolved, else, they risk the threat of legal action from R&F or some form of sanction.
Over the past week, that there have been a handful of players who have attracted interest from other clubs are hesitant to sign these players, at the present time, due to the aforementioned reasons. Of these players, only Lo Kwan-yee has signed for another club, returning to Rangers after 13 years. It is also believed that full backs Tsui Wang-kit and Fong Pak-lun have held talks with Eastern, though the latter has also been spotted at training with Pegasus.
Meanwhile, R&F have attempted to find new employers on the mainland for Serges Déblé and Igor Sartori. The players could potentially sign for a China League One side once the transfer window reopens in January, or join the main club Guangzhou R&F. Any player who successfully transfers to a mainland club would not be offered compensation by R&F. It is believed that Déblé and Sartori are currently in self-quarantine in Shenzhen.