Love them or hate them, the loss of R&F will hurt local football. In the first of a two-part series, we examine the short-term implications of their withdrawal.
After four seasons and 130 million dollars, R&F have pulled out of the Hong Kong Premier League.
On Monday afternoon, rumours began trickling out about a decision to withdraw, catching both the players and head coach Yeung Ching-kwong by surprise. Even as HKFA chairman Pui Kwan-kay told reporters on Monday that the HKFA had yet to receive written notice from the club, he could not help but hide his disappointment.
“It’ll be pity if R&F withdraw,” he said. “I will try my best to convince them to stay, but it may not be possible. The economic climate around local football has deteriorated over the past year which will inevitably make it more difficult to convince investors to get involved.”
On Wednesday, the club made an official announcement through their social media pages. The statement, written by general manager Tyler Guo, reads in part, “During the past four years, R&F has made various efforts to carry out programs including local youth development, signing high level players, providing better training facilities in Guangzhou for the team as well as promoting outstanding Hong Kong players to the Chinese Super League, which enables more local football elites to display their talents on a higher platform.
“…We are proud of our efforts over the past four years, in the face of the current atmosphere of Hong Kong football today, we decide to withdraw from the Hong Kong Premier League with immediate effect.”
Although the statement did not elaborate beyond the vague mention of the “current atmosphere”, Yeung suggested that the club had held long standing grudges against the HKFA. “It’s not all about results which can be improved through hard work…but the current situation of Hong Kong football and its related system that set up many hurdles for R&F to play in the Premier League,” he said.
“This has not just happened in the last months but have existed for a long time since R&F joined (the Premier League). The club have been let down time after time by many of the decisions against them on and off the field, and that’s possibly why management made such a decision which has been quite disappointing.”
Whilst the 2019-20 season was suspended, R&F urged their fellow clubs to consider breaking away and forming an independent entity to manage the Premier League. After the plans for the restart were announced, R&F strongly protested the HKFA’s allocation of Kowloon Bay Football Pitch as the club’s training ground due to its artificial surface. The club then briefly threatened to withdraw due to the HKFA’s lack of transparency over the aforementioned allocation process and the delay in the release of the schedule.
Of course, given the abundance of evidence otherwise, one can surmise that are other, more obvious for R&F’s decision to withdraw. The club have spent $130 million over their existence – with $100 million alone spent over the past two seasons in a futile quest for trophies. The club hired Yeung in 2018 after a season in which he steered Pegasus to a third-place finish, and over the past two seasons, they had brought on big name players such as Igor Sartori, Roberto, Giovane and Lo Kwan-yee with the expectation of results.
It is, perhaps, telling then that an internal memo was leaked earlier this past season where the club were, allegedly, contemplating whether to fold at the end of the season if they were, once again, unsuccessful in winning a trophy.
The decision of the HKFA’s Board of Directors last week to order the club to play all of its home matches in Hong Kong is believed to have played a part in R&F’s withdrawal. The club had invested large sums of money into renovating their training ground in Guangzhou where the players train on natural grass and stay in dormitories for most nights of the week. Kuo had also told reporters before the season that the club had paid out of pocket to revamp the drainage at Yanzigang Stadium, the club’s home ground in Guangzhou, and to expand the canopy over the main stand after complaints from away clubs and supporters. In the end, the club felt that they were unfairly targeted after the complaints did not cease.
R&F’s departure means that the Premier League will be contested by only eight teams next season. Despite persistent rumours with regard to a last minute return by Tai Po, the odds are overwhelmingly against their favour. At eight teams, the top-flight will be the smallest it has been since the 2005-06 season.
Should the league continue with a double round robin format, each team is now guaranteed only 22 matches next season if one accounts for all league and cup matches. It is unlikely that the poorer teams will agree to any change in format which will lead to more matches. The reason being is that the format, as it current stands, allows for all matches to be played on weekends, which will make it easy for clubs to attract fans. Crucially, it also allows for the season to be completed by May – saving clubs a month’s worth of expenses.
Although playing fewer matches may be applauded by some clubs, one must also be mindful of AFC regulations which state that every club must play a minimum of 27 domestic matches in order to be eligible for the Champions League. Recall that the Sapling Cup group stage was expanded ahead of the 2019-20 season in order to ensure that clubs would play more than 27 matches. While the AFC have granted its member associations an exemption from this requirement for the 2020-21 season, the challenge remains in future years to meet the threshold if the number of teams in the Premier League does not increase or if the league format does not change.
On the domestic front, the withdrawal of R&F will lead to the joblessness of nearly every single player on their squad. Of these players, 16 are Hong Kong passport holders – comprising of two thirds of the squad.
Yeung revealed that many of the players have one or two years remaining on their contracts, and that his own contract was valid through the end of the upcoming season. “I’ve personally called other Premier League clubs and some China League One clubs to ask them to consider signing my players,” said Yeung. “I haven’t given much thought about my own future. My focus is on helping the players.”
Some players on the squad who asked to remain anonymous believe that the foreign players will leave Hong Kong for other leagues or return to their respective homelands. It is possible that the better players on the squad could eventually sign with either Guangzhou R&F or another club in the mainland, though, it should be noted that the transfer window in China does not reopen until 1 January.
For players who are below such standard, their hopes are bleak with less than ten days until the start of next season. Many clubs have already finalized their squads for next season and few will have room in their budget for more players. Older players will likely find it more difficult as most have families to feed and cannot accept drastic pay cuts. Even if the more talented members of R&F’s squad were to find work with other clubs, it would invariably come at the expense of game time for younger, less experienced players.
There is also the matter of compensation for players who are under contract. Fung Hing-wa, who joined the club in July and was ineligible for the restart, admitted that the club have given no details, other than the fact that they will negotiate individually with each player over the terms of their termination. Other players have claimed that the club have only offered one month’s salary as compensation.
The players have not ruled out seeking assistance from the Labour Department – just as the Tai Po players did – but of all those who chose to speak admitted that it would be very difficult to recover full payment of their salaries for the upcoming season.
“Tsui Wang-kit, Jared Lum and I have been training regularly, even though we were ineligible. We didn’t take an extended holiday. We’ve just been preparing for next season,” said Fung, who confided that the news had been difficult to swallow. “The news that the club will fold is a massive blow. Apart from disappointment, I just feel helpless because I don’t know what my future holds.
“There are so many unknowns. Will the HKFA delay the start of next season? And even if I find a new club, can I be registered in time?”
His teammate Fong Pak-lun was even more somber, telling reporters he had no particular plans. “I have no words. I’ve never had to deal with anything like this,” he confessed. “I’m going to see if I can find another club. If I can’t then maybe, I’ll retire and change professions.
“Of course, if there’s an opportunity then I want to keep playing. But time is of the essence so there won’t be many clubs looking to add (players). I could potentially find a club to train with and sit out a year. Fortunately, I have a university degree so if it doesn’t work out, I’m confident I can find another job.”
For national team head coach Mixu Paatelainen, he will no doubt be eager to see that potential members of his squad are signed. Tsui, Fung, and Roberto are three R&F players who were called up to the squad for the 2019 EAFF Championship, while Giovane and the newly naturalized Matt Lam are fringe players who he may been keen to keep an eye on.