R&F back down from threat to withdraw

League leaders R&F briefly threatened to withdraw from the Premier League over a lack of transparency from the HKFA. After receiving more details about the restart, the club appear to have been placated.

R&F players returned to training as normal on Monday, despite threats by the club’s management that the team could withdraw from the Premier League.

On Saturday night, a letter from the club which was addressed to the HKFA was leaked to local media. In the letter, the club berated the HKFA for its lack of transparency and its inability to provide answers in a timely manner. The letter, which was drafted by R&F assistant team manager Xu Sai-king, listed uncertainty regarding the match schedule, the eligibility of newly signed players and the lack of transparency over the allocation of training grounds as the club’s three major grievances.

In an interview, Xu stated that the HKFA’s judgment “lacked professionalism” and argued that uncertainty over the restart would hurt unemployed footballers who are awaiting the start of the next season.

“The club have made major investments to upgrade our stadium and our training ground in Guangzhou, but we can’t use either of them right now,” he said. “Our whole squad is currently living out of a hotel whilst they await the restart. And with every passing day, the costs just keep adding up.”

Although the club had given the HKFA an ultimatum of sorts by threatening the possibility of withdrawal, Xu appeared to back down during the interview. He admitted that the intent of the letter was as much to spur the HKFA into action as it was a serious plan to withdraw. Xu alluded to the fact that the club had already lodged a complaint over its training ground, but no progress had been made.

On Monday, R&F head coach Yeung Ching-kwong stated that while the players would be given a day off on Tuesday, he had not been told to suspend operations, and expects to resume training on Wednesday.

In addition, Xu confirmed to reporters on Monday evening that R&F had received a draft copy of the schedule not long after their communication with the HKFA. He expressed mild satisfaction over the response but maintained that the club would take a “wait and see” approach. Xu did not rule out the possibility of withdrawal if there were no further positive developments.

The much maligned Kowloon Bay Football Pitch. (Credit: Alain Lai)

HKFA chairman appeals for calm

In response to inquiries, Pui Kwan-kay, chairman of the HKFA, expressed belief that the training ground allocation ordeal arose from a “misunderstanding.” He claimed to be sympathetic to R&F’s concerns but urged the club to consider the situation from the perspective of the HKFA.

“The Yanzigang controversy at the beginning of the season, coupled with the other clubs’ rejection of their voting rights application, may have been the real motivation behind their frustrations,” he mused. “But I don’t agree with threatening withdrawal. I hope that all parties can resolve this in a rational manner.”

At the heart of R&F’s concerns is the allocation of Kowloon Bay Football Pitch as their training ground during the restart. The club have vocally criticized the pitch’s hard artificial surface, which they believe have will increase the likelihood of soft tissue injuries.

Xu told the media that his players want to train on a natural surface – specifically naming the Football Training Centre as their preferred destination. However, if the club were allocated to another artificial surface, he stated that he would inevitably be “disappointed.”

Pui responded by stating that the HKFA did not have ultimate authority over how venues are allocated.

“It is very difficult to gain venues,” Pui countered, vehemently. “R&F claims that (the HKFA) is biased but we’re anything but biased. Eastern and Lee Man were allocated to use the Football Training Centre because that is where they normally train.

“After Kitchee (who own their own training ground) denied our request for them to share their training ground with R&F, we asked the government whether they would allow a third team to train at the FTC. But we must first consult with Dr. Patrick Yung (chairman of the HKFA’s Medical Committee) and also, we need the Department of Health’s approval.”

The chairman assured that he had met with Caspar Tsui, the Secretary for Home Affairs, last Friday to brief the government on the progress of the restart and the arrangements for the three clubs who will rejoin the league in the 2020-21 season. He expressed optimism that the HKFA would receive approval for matches to begin on Saturday.

Players from withdrawn clubs expected to be eligible

The question of player eligibility is still up in the air with the first matches just days away. Last month, the HKFA asked clubs to submit a list of new arrivals so that the organization could ask FIFA for case by case rulings. The organization has yet to receive a response from FIFA, but, Pui is confident that more than a handful of players will be eligible to play in the restart.

“After deliberations between the Board and the Legal Committee, if a player has previously played for any of the four withdrawn teams, the HKFA is inclined to accept their registration,” he revealed.

In its COVID-19 FAQ, FIFA states that: “As an exception to article 6 paragraph 1 of the RSTP, a professional whose contract has expired or been terminated as a result of COVID-19 has the right to be registered by an association outside a registration period, regardless of the date of expiry or termination.”

In order to for this exception to be used, the club or the player must provide proof that their contract with their previous employer was allowed to expire or was terminated unilaterally, as a result of COVID-19. However, as FIFA notes, registration is distinct from eligibility and thus, “it is the responsibility of (member associations) to ensure that the sporting integrity of its domestic competitions is preserved.”

Chan Hin-kwong was one of two players re-signed by Lee Man due to uncertainly over which players would be eligible. (Credit: Lee Man)

The clubs have generally interpreted FIFA’s ruling to mean that players – such as Fernando or Jared Lum – whose contracts simply expired prior to the conclusion of the season, can be registered by their new clubs but were ineligible to play. Other players – such as Sasaki Shu and Dudu – who accepted early termination of their contracts with the previous clubs, had uncertain eligibility.

As a result, some clubs have re-signed players whose contracts had expired in May to short term deals in order to provide themselves with sufficient cover during the restart.

If the HKFA are correct in their interpretation of the rule, as many as 21 newly transferred players could be eligible to play in the restart.

More details of the schedule begin to emerge

Although neither Xu nor Pui disclosed any details of the schedule, several details have been leaked through various sources.

It had been reported previously that the HKFA requested the use of three venues –  Tseung Kwan O Sports Ground, Siu Sai Wan Sports Ground and Mong Kok Stadium – for the restart. It is now reported that Hong Kong Stadium will be added to the list of venues.

Earlier, SCMP reported that Mong Kok had failed to receive the green light from the government due to concerns over its proximity to residential areas. However, the government appear to have backed down from their stance, and it is expected that all four stadiums will get the nod.

Last Friday, the 10th, the LCSD published an updated jogging timetable for Tseung Kwan O Sports Ground, which indicated that the stadium would be closed on the 19th, the 20th, the 27th and the 30th of this month for Premier League football. According to sources, the first match of the restart will take place at the venue at 3 pm on Saturday between Kitchee and Eastern.

Old foes lock horns in the first match of the restart. (Credit: Eastern)

The following day, Tseung Kwan O will play host to a match up between R&F and Southern. As previously reported, Happy Valley will duel Lee Man to close out the first round of the restart, but it is unclear where and when the match will take place.

The three cup finals will be scheduled across late September and early October. Eastern, who are finalists in both the Senior Shield and the HKFA Cup, could possibly be made to play in two finals over five days.

Despite early plans which indicated that the 2019-20 season would end on 11 October, it is now possible that the season will end a day later on the 12th. The plans remain for the new season to begin on 24 October.

It is believed that the HKFA do not plan on releasing the schedule until the government announces their latest pandemic prevention measures. If approval is given after the announcement, the schedule is expected to be released within 24-48 hours thereafter.

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