In the second of a two-part series, we take a deep dive into the long-term impact of R&F’s departure. We ponder whether local football has been plunged into another ‘Ice Age’ given the parallels to similar events in its history.
There is a term that has been thrown around since the start of the pandemic by football administrators, players and fans alike. It is a term that no one wants to hear because it conjures memories of a period in Hong Kong football history which was rather dark and regrettable.
No, the term is neither ‘match fixing’, nor is it ‘Voldemort’. It is ‘Ice Age’.
The Ice Age refers to a period between 2001 to 2006 when the total attendance for domestic football matches was less than 40,000 a year and the average attendance per match hovered around 300. Exacerbating the problem was the 2003 SARS epidemic which further dissuaded fans from attending matches. The First Division was massively unstable with the number of participating teams fluctuating between seven and ten, all while nearly 10 per cent of players left football altogether by the end of the Ice age.
What precipitated the Ice Age is unclear, although Hong Kong football had experienced a similar type of shock before. In 1984, Bulova withdrew from the First Division despite finishing runners-up and winning five trophies over the previous three seasons. In 1986, Seiko pulled out of the First Division in protest of the HKFA’s ban on foreigners, though the club had won 29 trophies over its 16 history. Matches which used to draw between 15,000 and 20,000 per match were watched by far fewer people by the early 90s, which had a negative effect on the amount of money coming into the sport. This, in turn, meant that less money could be paid to entice quality players and keep fans interested.
There are parallels between what happened during the 80s and what happened at the start of the Ice Age. In 2001, reigning Senior Shield champions Yee Hope and reigning HKFA Cup champions Instant-Dict both withdrew from the league. The effect was that the salaries of players in their prime dropped from more than 20,000 a month to 3,000 over night.
What ended the Ice Age was large scale investment by two men in particular: Steven Lo into South China and Ken Ng into Kitchee. The HKFA recognized that it needed its big clubs to be successful and popular in order to for the local game to thrive so they exempted South China from relegation following the 2005-06 season in exchange for Lo’s vow to inject massive amounts of funds into the club.
Has local football entered another Ice Age? Former Hong Kong international Chan Wai-ho thinks so. As Chan wrote on his Facebook page on Wednesday morning, “The decisions of big clubs always has a ripple effect on the entire local scene. Perhaps local football has re-entered another Ice Age.
“Of course, I do not want history to repeat itself. (But) history always repeats itself. This is what history tells us.”
There has been no shortage of clubs who have withdrawn from the First Division over the years with Seiko, Sea Bee and Bulova being just some of the names who come to mind. In the Premier League era, self-relegation as opposed to outright withdrawal has been the method of choice for clubs such as South China, Metro Gallery and Dreams FC who no longer wish to field professional sides.
The HKFA deserve some blame for the withdrawals and self-relegations over the years as the incentives for clubs to continue to participate in the Premier League are scant. According to the 2019-20 Premier League regulations, the maximum fine for clubs who withdraw from a competition before it begins is $20,000 – a very, small price to pay. Once a team has participated in a match of a given competition, the fine rises to only $80,000. But as HKFA chairman Pui Kwan-kay explained bluntly, “Even if we penalize clubs who withdraw or strip their membership, they won’t care. Their intentions are to leave.”
Hong Kong clubs, like most clubs around the world, lose money. Most clubs are run as passion projects by wealthy businessmen, and those who are not are sponsored often by a single major sponsor who can pull their support at any time. With no television revenue to offset costs, team budgets are usually determined by how much money a businessman is willing to invest in their hobby or how much money a sponsor is willing to donate to local football. As clubs spend millions more than they take in every season, it should come as no surprise that chairmen would rather pay a small fine as opposed to carrying on.
This is why there are no easy solutions to the perpetual problems of withdrawal and self-relegation. Some will argue that in order to solve this problem, the HKFA should drop the requirement for players to be signed as full-time professionals and allow clubs to decide how many players they wish to sign to professional contracts. This, they posit, would then mean that promotion and relegation could function as it should. But to no longer require players to be professionals would be a step back for the local game as it would defeat the purpose of the Premier League’s establishment.
In terms of success, R&F have more in common with Metro Gallery and Dreams than they do with South China or Seiko. Yet, in terms of what it means for the players, the loss of R&F will seem more similar to the loss of the latter two clubs than the former. Take for example, the fact that a key player on a top Premier League club earns roughly $80,000 to $100,000 a month as a result of inflation in the market brought on by R&F’s emergence. Indeed, even squad players for the club earn roughly $50,000 a month while starters take home over $100,00 a month and up to $300,000 for the those at the top. After R&F’s exit from the league, coupled with the effects of the pandemic, one should expect average salaries to go down.
Those who have opposed R&F’s participation in Hong Kong competitions since the beginning will argue that, regardless of the club’s finances, their participation should be opposed on supposed principles:
- That cross-border teams should not be allowed, even though there are clubs from Wales, Canada, New Zealand and many others who currently enjoy this status.
- That cross-border teams playing as guests in another association’s competitions should not be able to qualify for continental competition through those competitions, even though Derry City, a club from Northern Ireland, have qualified for European competition on 17 occasions as members of the Republic of Ireland’s competitions.
- That the decision to give R&F the right to register Chinese players as local players for the first three years of their existence put other teams at a disadvantage, even though all evidence seems to suggest that it was R&F who were at a disadvantage. The club were rarely able to recruit Chinese players who were of Premier League quality and they did not emerge as title contenders until their third season when they increased their budget in order to recruit better Hong Kong players.
- That R&F should never have been granted permission to play home matches in Guangzhou although, in the context of a negotiation, it was a compromise. If R&F’s management had bargained with the HKFA and told them that the club would invest $50 million into their club every year with most of the money going to local players, in exchange for approval to play in Guangzhou, this is a deal that the HKFA should reasonably be expected to take.
But therein lies the disconnect between how the typical fan perceives R&F and how those in the game feel about the club. For fans, the club were nothing more than bullies who bribed the HKFA into bending over backwards for the club. Any complaints raised by R&F were dismissed instantly – for the club had been privileged for so long, that equality must now, surely, feel like oppression.
Had R&F remained in the league, they would have played all of their matches in Hong Kong next season due to the uncertainty over travel restrictions. As the main complaint amongst their detractors has centred around the club’s approval to play home matches in Guangzhou, would the club have been able to convince fewer numbers of fans from opposing their continued participation? And would the reaction be the same if R&F were based in Taiwan or Macau?
But of course, we all know what the answers would be. Because after all, the elephant in the room must be acknowledged and that is that opposition to R&F is less about football than it is politics. We must acknowledge that there are many who see Hong Kong today as under siege by an Oppressor who seeks the eradication of the local culture and its replacement with a version that is more advantageous to the Oppressor’s goals. They see R&F as an arm of the Oppressor, and though not everyone who agrees with this view is a fan of local football, great numbers local fans agree with this view.
Thus, when permission was granted for R&F to participate in the Premier League, it was interpreted as consent for the Oppressor to invade further. When R&F were granted permission to register Chinese players as locals, it was interpreted as contributing to the dilution of Hong Kong culture. When R&F sought permission to qualify for Asia through Hong Kong competitions, it was interpreted as theft from the Hong Kong people for the benefit of the Oppressor. Simply put, the club represented another frontier of the existential crisis that many in Hong Kong feel on a daily basis.
Consider a line in R&F’s farewell statement that their efforts over the past four years were aimed at familiarizing “supporters of the Greater Bay Area with the Hong Kong Premier League.” Such words suggest that the club had felt that there was limited potential for growth in Hong Kong and so, the way forward for Hong Kong football was to expose it to a wider audience and attract more outside investment. However, what they did not realize was that to talk of outside investment is to instinctively trigger local fans into opposition. Outside investment is a euphemism for greater integration of Hong Kong’s economy with that of the Oppressor’s – or so such fans would say.
Perhaps such fears are justified, perhaps R&F should have been more sensitive in their messaging and perhaps eight teams are a reasonable number for the Premier League at this moment in time given the talent level of Hong Kong players. But in the end, is the view that the professional game should only succeed or fail based on investment by Hong Kong sponsors and Hong Kong based fans really a sustainable business model? Surely the answer should be a resounding ‘no’ if one were serious.
Even former R&F midfielder Lam Ka-wai who left the club under unceremonious circumstances, admitted that the local game needs more investment from wherever it can get it. “Honestly, I understand that people have differing opinions about R&F,” he said. “But if Hong Kong football was healthy, we wouldn’t need ‘foreign’ teams. At the very least, R&F was investing heavily to try and build a contender.
“I understand the criticisms against the club, but R&F’s withdrawal will have a big impact on the economic climate around local football. Presently, there are only eight teams left, which is not far from what the league was during the Ice Age. It’s not a good thing if there are fewer people looking to invest.”
R&F head coach Yeung Ching-kwong took this point a step further during his news conference on Wednesday, remarking, “Long-term, what concerns me the most is whether being a professional footballer is still a good decision? I’m worried whether there will still be people in Hong Kong who are willing to become professional footballers. This is the biggest worry for local football.”
That is, arguably, the most prescient point. For players, R&F represented something that was aspirational. It represented a step up in their careers where their salaries would become more lucrative, which would allow them to live more comfortably and challenge for silverware. Given the unlikelihood for most players to play abroad in a better league, playing for R&F was akin to what playing for South China or Seiko meant for previous generations.
But with R&F gone, we are left with a duopoly at the top between Eastern and Kitchee. The two clubs who split four trophies between them during the 2019-20 season will be favoured to win every competition in the foreseeable future.
R&F are dead and in their place is virtue signalling amongst fans over who hates R&F the most. Celebrations of the club’s demise continue to ring throughout the channels of social media where the anti-R&F crowd gather, all the while, unemployed players sit at home and contemplate their futures. A nuanced view of reality has long been rejected in favour of preconceived ideology.
It would not be wise to assume that the views expressed by a majority of fans on social media reflect those of the football community, else, one would be led to conclude that masochism and sadism are inherent characteristics of Hong Kong football. But in this case, it appears that such schadenfreude is indeed felt by a majority in the football community, because those who are delighted with the recent news see the death of R&F as a rare victory over the Oppressor.
To be clear, the management at R&F are not blameless. They were vague in their statement as to the reasons for their withdrawal, which left open the question of their true motivations. Economically, all clubs in Hong Kong are suffering and the challenges faced by R&F are not much different than that of other clubs. The club could have asked players to take a pay cut and reduced its expenditures as best it could, yet they refused. If the club withdrew due to poor results, then their withdrawal reflects a fragile, loser mentality on the part of their management which probably explains why the club never won silverware. But whatever their reasons, the decision to leave a group of more than 20 players unemployed on the eve of the new season is as much heartless as it is cowardly.
In any event, we must not lose sight of the real lesson to be learned from this ordeal: Professional football in Hong Kong is facing its own existential crisis. The HKFA are not a position where it can afford to be picky as to who is funding Premier League clubs or where the sources of those funds are from. The history of football in the city traces back over a century, but the history of a fully professional league only dates back to 2014. The Premier League is still a young league and therefore, it should not be beholden to the traditions of its own past or those of other nations.
Everything must be on the table and purism must go out the window. Major stakeholders must be prepared to discuss any idea to stabilize professional football, whether it is the suspension of promotion and relegation between the Premier League and the First Division, the institution of revenue sharing, and yes, the approval of clubs outside of Hong Kong’s borders to compete in the Premier League.
In 2014, the league declined an offer from TVB to broadcast 16 matches a year for the price of $3.4 million and instead, chose to accept a cheaper offer from the less watched, ATV. It cannot make another mistake like this again. The Premier League, as it stands today, means so little to so few. It must find a way to mean a lot more to many more.
For professional football to thrive, it needs its big clubs – such as R&F – to survive. It needs to those big clubs to become more popular, so that the Premier League can become more popular, so that its players can become more popular. Local football needs its share of heroes and villains, loved and loathed, but never driven to the point of non-existence. The Premier League needs financial stability, wherever it can find it, however it can get it.
Some will object to the characterization of R&F as a big club but when so fans were obsessed with their results, what other characterization is more appropriate in the context of Hong Kong football?
There are those who will continue to insist that the club were a Trojan horse extension of the Oppressor’s soft power, designed to placate the Hong Kong people, while secretly erasing local football of its Hong Kong characteristics.
If only that were so and R&F were not, rather, a canary in the coal mine of Hong Kong football.