The new season will begin with three weeks of Sapling Cup matches, R&F will play all of their matches in Hong Kong, and teams will be able to name up to 23 players on their match day squad.
The HKFA’s Board of Directors met on Thursday afternoon, one day after several Premier League clubs asked for a delay to the start of the league campaign. At Wednesday’s meeting, the clubs reached a compromise in order to start the 2020-21 season on 24 October, but agreed that Sapling Cup matches would be scheduled for the early weeks of the season.
The compromise was necessary after four clubs raised concerns over the delay in the arrival of their foreign players, which some feared would create an unequal playing field between clubs who already have their full compliment of foreigners and those who did not. As the purpose of the Sapling Cup is to give local U22 players more minutes, and because the competition would rely less on the participation of foreigners, it was agreed that the group stage matches would go ahead first.
Pui Kwan-kay, chairman of the HKFA, deemed the request by the four clubs as “reasonable” and added today that Lee Man had also asked for the season to be delayed. Therefore, it is understood that the first three weeks of the season will consist of only Sapling Cup matches.
“The HKFA is confident that the new season will start, as planned, at the end of the month,” he said. “But, in consideration of the concerns of the clubs, the Sapling Cup group stage may be scheduled first to act as a buffer.”
The format of the Sapling Cup will remain largely the same, with teams split into two groups – in spite of the fact that there are an odd number of teams. The group stage will remain a double round robin, however, the top two teams in each group will advance to the knockout phase.
The HKFA removed the semi-final stage last season in order to alleviate fixture congestion due to expansion of the group stage into a double round robin. This move backfired as many matches became dead rubbers when many teams fell out of contention after the first four or five matches. The chairman stated that he hoped the group stage will be more competitive next season with the return of the semi-finals.
R&F to play home matches in Hong Kong for 2020-21
During their inaugural season, R&F played their home matches at Siu Sai Wan Sports Ground. Beginning with the 2017-18 season, the club has, controversially, received permission from the HKFA to play their home matches at Yanzigang Stadium in Guangzhou where the club’s training ground is also located.
Due to the pandemic, the club has been forced to move its operations back to Hong Kong, housing players in hotels and conducting training at the Football Training Centre as a stop gap measure. This arrangement will continue next season, confirmed Pui, due to ongoing travel restrictions between Hong Kong and the mainland, health declarations and possible quarantine.
“R&F will move their home matches to Hong Kong and there will be no change of home ground after the start of the season,” the chairman declared.
23 man match day squads to be the norm next season
Last month, the HKFA approved the use of five substitutions during the restart, with the caveat that the rule change needed to be renewed for use in the 2020-21 season.
On Thursday, the Board formally gave its approval for the continued use of five substitutions, with amended terms which will allow clubs to name 12 substitutes, up from the current seven. This change effectively allows clubs to name up to 23 players in total on their match day squad.
Pui expressed belief that the rule change will allow more playing opportunities for younger players but stressed that the change is only temporary. “Because this is a new rule, we will review it at the end of the year and discuss whether we should revert back to three substitutions from seven (for the 2021-22 season),” he cautioned.
Cups cancelled, leagues delayed, no fans at the start
Speaking of travel restrictions, the chairman confirmed that the Guangdong-Hong Kong Cup, which was last held in 2019, was unlikely to be held in 2021.
The Community Cup, which was cancelled at the last-minute last season, would again be cancelled for next season as well. In his explanation, Pui cited the unlikelihood of fans being able to attend the event and the diminished publicity value ipso facto, as the reasons why the event would not be held.
The chairman did confirm that the HKFA would strive to speak with the government as soon as possible about entering Phase 2 of its reopening, which would allow fans back into stadiums. Because fans are not expected to be allowed back before the start of the next season, Pui reiterated the organization’s desire for subsidies from the Home Affairs Bureau to make up for lost revenues on the part of the clubs.
As for the women’s and lower division leagues, the chairman stated that preliminary preparations were underway, and that team and player registrations were open. He stopped short of declaring a start date for those respective seasons, though, as it had not been finalized.