On Thursday, players from clubs not competing in AFC competitions returned to training for the first time since January. In keeping with government regulations, the players wore masks during training, prompting comments about the absurdity of the situation.
Players from Rangers and Resources Capital returned to training on Thursday for the first time since public sports facilities were shut down on 7 January. The shut down, which was due to a rise in cases linked to the Omicron variant, forced fellow Premier League clubs Lee Man and Kitchee to fly their entire squads to Thailand in order to prepare for their respective Asian competitions.
The shut down, which lasted three months, was lifted on 6 April when the government announced that sports facilities where teams or athletes competing in AFC competitions or the Asian Games could be reopened. This decision allowed the HKFA to reopen the Football Training Centre in Tseung Kwan O on the 14th for members of the Hong Kong senior and U23 teams to resume training. On the same day, the government confirmed that all public sports would reopen on the 21st.
The distinction between these two types of facilities is crucial because as Leisure and Cultural Services Department director Vincent Liu warned last week, all users of LCSD owned venues must keep their masks on, even during exercise. This meant that Rangers and RCFC players who had not seen their teammates’ faces in months remained unable to fully see the faces of their teammates. Meanwhile, those who were selected to train at the FTC were able to do so without masks.
“Obviously, wearing a mask to training made the humidity even less bearable,” Rangers skipper Lam Ka-wai remarked. “But we have to follow the guidelines.”
His teammate, Juninho, concurred, saying that, “It’s very hard to wear a mask while training. I had to inhale large breaths of air during the water breaks to compensate (for reduced oxygen flow). I hope that the government will change these guidelines soon.”
Making matters worse for Rangers was the fact that they were training on an artificial surface at the Kowloon Bay Football Pitch in the morning. Conditions were not much better for RCFC, despite training in the afternoon on natural grass at Tsing Yi Sports Ground.
“It’s definitely hard,” said co-captain Cheng King-ho. “Let’s not even talk about running. It’s hard enough to breathe with a mask on in the summer.”
In spite of the challenges, the three players were happy to be back on the pitch.
“Just being able to get back on the pitch is already good,” Lam conferred. “Although I trained on my own during lockdown, you don’t feel like you’re a professional player when it’s just you. The most beneficial thing is to be able to train together, as a team, on the pitch.
Clubs waiting on HKFA plans
Neither Rangers nor Resources Capital trained with a full squad on Thursday. Players who were called up to the Hong Kong training camp such as Rangers’ Jesse Yu, Charles Yeung and Lau Hok-ming, as well as RCFC’s Yeung Hin-lok and Lau Kwan-ching were absent. Foreign players from both sides who were given permission to leave Hong Kong during the fifth wave were not present and neither was RCFC head coach Joan Estava.
Rangers director Philip Lee attended Thursday’s training session and said that the club would look to arrange friendlies with other Premier League or lower division clubs as soon as the players are back in shape. He implored the HKFA to promptly announce the number of teams for next season so that the clubs can begin preparations.
In contrast, RCFC director Ho Shun-yin said that his club had no plans to arrange friendlies for the time being due to concerns over the risk of injury. He admitted that the Pink Ribbons had yet to start recruiting players for next season because the HKFA had yet to finalize any plans.
“I haven’t spoken with the bosses about what our strategy for next season will be,” Ho said. “The foreigners have asked me when they can return but I can only tell them that as soon as there is new news, I will get back to them. Hopefully by May, things will start falling into place and we’ll have a clear picture of what next season will look like.”