Premier League clubs have received permission from the government to resume training on Wednesday. The season could resume as early as 17 February, with the plan to complete the Sapling Cup and league season only, while the Senior Shield and FA Cup will be axed.
The HKFA have announced an agreement with the government permitting Premier League clubs to resume full team training as early as Wednesday. The announcement comes a day after the organization received the green light from the Home Affairs Bureau, clearing the way for a possible return to play in two weeks time.
In response to the news, the HKFA held a meeting with the eight Premier League clubs on Tuesday afternoon, detailing the return to play protocols that will be in place. It is believed that all of the protocols used during the restart of the 2019-20 season will be followed, including the requirement for players to home quarantine when not engaging in football activity, regular testing, and the use of private transport.
To gain the approval of the government, the HKFA have agreed to strengthen its protocols with three additional measures. First, all players and staff must use the LeaveHomeSafe app upon entering any football venue. Second, the HKFA will increase the frequency of random checks on the players to ensure that each player is compliant with home quarantine requirements. Third, should any player test positive, his respective team shall cease training immediately and fines could be levied against the club.
Five venues will be reopened for clubs to use, with the designations as follows:
- Kitchee Training Centre – Kitchee
- Tseung Kwan O Football Training Centre – Eastern, Lee Man and Resources Capital
- Wong Chuk Hang Recreation Ground – Southern
- Tin Yip Road Park – Pegasus
- Kowloon Bay Football Pitch – Happy Valley and Rangers
After the meeting, HKFA chairman Pui Kwan-kay revealed that no positive tests were recorded last week, meaning that all player should be able to attend training on Wednesday. The clubs also agreed to target the 17th or 18th of February as the official return to play date, pending government approval.
“As long as everything goes according to plan in the next two weeks, I’m confident that we can deliver a return to play,” he said.
Although the chairman did not comment further, sources with knowledge of the situation state that the plan is for the remainder of the Sapling Cup to be completed first, as a prelude to the league campaign. It is is expected that Hong Kong Stadium, Mong Kok Stadium and Tseung Kwan O Sports Ground – the three stadiums used during last season’s restart – will be used for this season’s restart. All matches will remain closed door until further notice, although broadcasts of the matches will be provided.
In addition, Pui announced that the Senior Shield and FA Cup would be cancelled for this season after consultation with the clubs, in order to alleviate potential fixture congestion.
“Owing to the time constraints, the Senior Shield and FA Cup will be cancelled,” the chairman declared. “Because our priority is to maintain the league structure with the championship and relegation groups at the end of the season, we’ve made this decision. The qualifications for next season’s Asian competitions will be determined entirely through the league table.”
Government relents after industry wide outcry
Rumours of a possible resumption of training began trickling out late Monday afternoon after Chief Secretary for Administration Matthew Cheung announced that social distancing measures would be extended until 17 February. Notably, in the same news conference, he stated that restrictions on sports venues would be lifted for activities where there is “less body contact”.
Cheung’s announcement has come during a period of intense criticism from the sports industry after the government allowed the annual Lunar New Year flower markets to open. The markets, which were initially cancelled, were allowed to open with stringent crowd control after florists successfully lobbied the government to reverse its decision, citing massive losses of income. This, in turn, angered many in the sports industry who felt that it was hypocritical of the government to allow events which would attract large gatherings of people, while prohibiting sport to resume in a safe manner.
Lee Man head coach Chan Hiu-ming, who had called for venues to reopen, wrote a post on his Facebook page on 18 January in which he described the current period as the “worst time in Hong Kong professional football history since World War II.” Three days later, local supporters group Support HK Football released a joint statement, signed by current and former players, calling for matches to resume behind closed doors by mid-February and the limited reopening of stadiums to fans once the number of daily cases drops to ten or less.
The government, which had reportedly refused to entertain the idea of allowing teams to resume training until the number of untraceable cases was down to single digits, has done an about-face more than 60 days after venues were shut down in response to the fourth wave of the coronavirus.
Hong Kong to launch long shot host bid
Due travel restrictions, the AFC announced last week that the group stages of the Champions League and the AFC Cup would be played in centralized venues.
In response to inquiries as to whether Hong Kong would bid to host a group in either competition, Pui confirmed that Kitchee had expressed an interest in hosting their group and have asked the HKFA to follow up. The chairman stated that the HKFA will explore the possibility of hosting but expects that the chances of success will be unlikely.
“Every person who arrives in Hong Kong is required to quarantine upon arrival,” he said. “If we’re to host an AFC Champions League group stage, the arrangement would need to be similar to the International Jockey’s Championship where quarantine was exempt for participants. The difference is that the group stage involves three foreign teams, so the number of people who will be involved is much larger. On top of that, we need both the AFC and the government to agree which makes any hosting bid complicated.
“We need to study and discuss this thoroughly, but we’ll do our best to help Kitchee win the bid.”