Premier League season cancelled due to Omicron


With no end to COVID restrictions in sight, Premier League clubs were presented with four proposals on how to move forward, from attempting to resume play in May to waiting until August. In the end, they chose the only option that would give them certainty.

“It was a very difficult decision,” said HKFA CEO Joe Tam. But it was one that had to be done.

On Friday, 25 February, the HKFA and the eight Premier League clubs agreed to cancel the remainder of the 2021-22 season, including all league and cup matches. This includes the FA Cup final between Kitchee and Eastern which was originally scheduled for the first day of the Lunar New Year, on 1 February, but was subsequently postponed.

To put the announcement into perspective, the last time a Hong Kong football league season was cancelled was due to World War II.

Before reaching the decision, Tam stated that the HKFA had discussed possible solutions with the clubs and the government, but alas, the decision was made to call it quits. “Unfortunately, the pandemic situation has worsened and stadiums have been temporarily closed until 20 April owing to social distancing measures,” Tam said in a statement. “Being faced with the many uncertainties of the pandemic development, and that players need three to four weeks’ time to prepare for competitions due to the lack of training for a long time, it is indeed hard to plan the rest of the fixtures. Therefore, the eight Premier League clubs agreed to cancel the matches of this season after discussion.”

It is believed that the HKFA presented clubs with four possible options, ranging from the best-case scenario of a resumption of training on 25 April and return to play in May, to the worst-case scenario of a complete cancellation. Also believed to have been discussed was the possibility of resuming the season in August and playing out the rest of the season as either a double round-robin or a single round-robin. The possibility of continuing with a triple round-robin format or playing out the rest of the Sapling Cup fixtures were not presented in any of the options proposed by the HKFA.

Rangers director Philip Lee relayed to the media that Dr. Patrick Yung, the HKFA’s medical advisor, told the clubs that he did not expect the pandemic situation to improve by April. On Friday, the daily number of new cases in Hong Kong surpassed 10,000 for the first time, setting a record which looks to be broken several more times in the days ahead. As of the time of writing, 28 Premier League players or staff members have tested positive since the outbreak of Omicron.

In the end, the parties made the only decision that would provide them with certainly under the circumstances, and that was to end the season.

Tam noted that the HKFA would look into organizing an overseas training camp for prospective Hong Kong team players in order to get around government restrictions and allow Jørn Andersen to work with his players. In addition to the Asian Cup qualifiers in June, the CEO said that he expects the final round of the 2022 E-1 Championship to go ahead in July.

Tam stated that the goal is to begin next season in August. (Credit: HKFA)

Complications for clubs competing in Asia

After the meeting of Premier League clubs, Kitchee chairman Ken Ng echoed Lee’s assessment that a resumption of the season would be unfeasible under the current conditions.

“In the past two years, even when there were only 100 or so cases a day, it took two or three months for the situation to ease,” he said. “Today, there are 10,000 new cases, so it’s unlikely that the situation will dissipate in next three months. Rather than waiting around, it’s better to use the time to plan ahead and ensure that next season can begin on time.”

When asked about the possibility of resuming the season in August, Ng was dismissive of the idea. He referred to the 2019-20 season as a case in point, describing how the situation became farcical when four teams withdrew from the league after play was suspended, which meant that all results involving those teams needed to be expunged from the league table.

Tam stated on Friday that he hoped that players could resume training in July, which means a possible mid-August start for the 2022-23 season. Government restrictions permitting, the HKFA hopes to arrange cup matches in July, perhaps the Sapling Cup in particular, as a precursor to the season. Participation in these matches is voluntary and up to the discretion of each club.

It is not believed that the league campaign will begin until 20 August at the earliest. This would also mean that the HKFA’s long held plans to switch to a single year calendar in 2023 may have been kiboshed for the time being, if not for good.

Both the decision to cancel the season and the plan to stick with a dual year calendar may also have been influenced by the AFC’s announcement earlier during the day to formally approve a change in format for the Champions League and the AFC Cup, beginning with the 2023-24 season. The two competitions will now follow a dual year system, with future editions expected to start in autumn and end in the spring of the following year. As a consequence, results of the 2021-22 season were unlikely to be used to determine Hong Kong’s berths for tournaments that are not scheduled to begin for at least another year and a half, which gave leeway for the clubs to cancel the rest of the season.

In response to questions about allocation, the AFC told the Times of India in a statement: “Given the transitionary period of the AFC club competitions, the decision to select the teams to participate in the AFC club competitions will primarily rest with the Member Associations, subject to possible further conditions as part of the entry requirements, which will be communicated in due course.”

HKFA chairman Pui Kwan-kay confirmed that the organization has not determined how it will allocate its 2023-24 berths but stated, in his opinion, that it would be “unfair” to use the current table to do so. No decisions were made on Friday with regard to the final table for this season or the allocation of berths. It is believed that another meeting will be held in the future to adjudicate the matter.

Kitchee will hold a month long training camp in Bangkok and play friendlies against local sides in order to maintain their fitness levels ahead of the AFC Champions League. (Credit: Kitchee)

As for this season’s Asian competitions, Ng confirmed that Kitchee have applied for 40 Thai visas so that the Bluewaves could begin preparations for their Champions League matches in April. The visas will allow the team to travel to fly to Bangkok sometime between 10-15 March and remain in the country for up to 60 days.

Thailand became an obvious destination for Kitchee to hold their training camp given that their Group J matches will also be held in the country. They are also taking advantage of an offer of quarantine-free visas by the Thai government to visitors who are fully vaccinated as part of the government’s ‘living with COVID strategy’.

Lee Man head coach Chan Hiu-ming lamented the cancellation of the season but reconciled the decision by saying that “short term pain is preferable to long term pain.” The Bees are due to play Mongolian club Athletic 220 in an AFC Cup East Zone playoff match on 19 April but are actively seeking a postponement of the match.

“The AFC have not approved anything as of yet. It’s still possible that we will have to play on that date without home field advantage, or it could be postponed until June,” the coach stated. “As soon as a date is confirmed, we can start arranging a training camp. Thailand is an option but it depends on where the playoff match will be held and what the local quarantine policies are.”

Eastern, who have directly qualified for the AFC Cup group stage, said that they were considering multiple plans and did not elaborate further.

Participating clubs for next season still unknown

With the 2021-22 season now officially over, Lee got an early start to his annual ‘Will they, Won’t they’ mind games regarding Rangers’ future in the Premier League. After Friday’s meeting, the Rangers director maintained that he would take a wait and see approach and make a decision according to the number of clubs who intend to play in the top flight next season.

“There’s no need for a big outlay during these uncertain times,” he said. “We’ll consult with our players and see what they think.

“Some people have asked whether we’ll self-relegate. Who knows? The social unrest of 2019, which was followed by the pandemic, has had a great impact on our club. All of the bosses are continuing to pay salaries but no matches are being played.”

Lee told reporters that he has encouraged Tam to actively lobby any First Division clubs who maybe interested in joining the Premier League to do so. To lessen the financial burden of the clubs, Lee suggested that the HKFA should consider waiving fees in order to help Premier League clubs during this difficult period.

The Rangers director also revealed that Rangers have agreed with their foreign players to freeze their contracts. One of those players is talisman striker Leandro Basan, who has decided to return to Argentina instead of remaining in Hong Kong indefinitely.

Lee is, once again, coy about his club’s plans for next season. (Credit: 881903)

Ng held a more optimistic view from his colleague Lee, saying that the market had shown signs of recovery in recent years, prior to the pandemic. “It’s not that everyone has done a poor job (of managing the situation), it’s that we need to support and co-operate with the government’s anti-pandemic measures,” the Kitchee president said. “It’s one thing to have a plan, but it’s another thing to understand the situation at hand. The stoppage two years ago caused two teams to self-relegate so hopefully, this time no one will self-relegate. But if it does happen, I’ve heard that there are some First Division teams who are interested in going up so we’ll have to wait and see what happens. ”

He added that the cancellation of the season has not affected contract discussions with players and reiterated that striker Dejan Damjanović still has another year left on his deal.

Southern chairman Chan Man-chun, who is believed to have been the only chairman to support a return to play in May, was understandably disappointed over the cancellation of the season. His club, who sit top of the table after four matches, told the media that he felt as though his players’ efforts have been wasted and that the exposure that sponsors had hoped to gain has been lessened due to the curtailing of the season. The latter point, in turn, will lead to greater difficulty in finding sponsorship, which, in his opinion, is the biggest challenge for any club.

Fans, however, should not be concerned about Southern’s presence in the Premier League next season. Although Kwoon Chung Bus stopped sponsoring the club directly this season, the company’s chairman, Matthew Wong – who is also the president of Southern – chipped in with his own personal money to finance the club, demonstrating a level of financial resilience that is rare in Hong Kong football. This year, the Aberdeeners’ budget was $8 million and their chairman stated that he expects to be able to build a squad for next season.

“As long as you have money in Hong Kong, you can find players,” Chan believes. “This season’s squad was put together, piece by piece, after other clubs pulled out of the league and certain players became available to us.”

Resources Capital, though, look to be on questionable footing even as the club’s director, Ho Shun-yin, revealed that all of their players remain in Hong Kong and will continue to receive their salaries until the end of the month. The only exception was attacking midfielder, Diego Peláez, who terminated his contract with the club in late January in order to return to Spain. Ho stated that the Pink Ribbons’ bosses would need to re-examine their situation in the months ahead.

One other club whose future is yet to be determined are HKFC. The club, who are in the middle of transitioning to fully professional, still have players within the squad who work during the day. The club have made the HKFA aware that they may not be ready to make the start of the season due to various professional and work commitments scheduled for members of their squad.

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