Through good times and bad, Rangers have gone above and beyond their call of duty to look after its players and coaches. It’s a club value that endures, even during a pandemic.
Look near the bottom of the Premier League table in any given year and you will likely find Rangers. And if you were to look at the bottom of the table in terms of spending, you will likely again find Rangers.
But the notoriously frugal club aren’t shy about discussing their budget. In fact, they’ll point to the players who they’ve developed in spite of their budget as their greatest source of pride. The club have made it their mission to bring new players into the professional ranks, often signing young players to their first professional contracts and then letting them go if wealthier clubs see potential in them. Over the years, players such as Chan Wai-ho, Peter Man, Lo Kwan-yee and Lam Ka-wai – all former Hong Kong internationals – have all come through the doors of Rangers during the early portion of their careers.
Just as frugality is part of the charm of Rangers, so is their director Philip Lee. The blunt talking septuagenarian once said in an interview, “Each time we discuss a contract with (young) players, we insist on asking them how they’re doing academically. If they say they’re getting good grades, I tell them not to become professional footballers because there’s not much money to be made in Hong Kong football.”
Lee, who is a lifelong fan of Rangers, was handed the reigns of the club during the late 80s by the club’s founder, Ian Petrie. In the three decades since taking charge of the club, Rangers have won only two major trophies – a Senior Shield/HKFA Cup double in 1994-95 – yet this lack of success does not faze the director. His motto for the club is “限米煮限飯” which is Chinese for “Live within your means”, a phrase which Lee has repeated many times ahead of this season.
Rangers weren’t supposed to be in the Premier League this season. By the letter of the league’s regulations, the club who finished as champions of the First Division in the prior season held the right of first refusal to be promoted. As Happy Valley had exercised this right, and because only one club has the right to promote each season, Rangers should have spent this season in the First Division.
But of course, this is Hong Kong football and seldom do things happen as they should.
On July 11, 2019, after weeks of speculation about their future, Dreams FC announced that they would self-relegate. Suddenly, Rangers, who had applied for promotion in the event that Happy Valley would decline their right, were tasked with assembling a Premier League squad in six weeks.
Yet, despite the pressures of competing in a higher division, Rangers determined that they would stick to their budget of $4 million, the same amount as it would have been had they not been promoted. During the club’s season opening media event, Lee disclosed that the squad would be comprised of mostly university students, each being paid an average salary of less than $20,000 for the season – or “pocket change” as he described it.
However, not all players signed by Rangers in the past offseason were first time professionals. After Dreams decided to self-relegate, Lee signed two of the club’s former players – Poon Pak-on and Peng Lin-lin – as well as their former technical director Chiu Chung-man.
The club also added Tomas Maronesi – known commonly by his first name only – and former Hong Kong international Jean-Jacques Kilama. Both players were introduced to Hong Kong football by Rangers and had found themselves without jobs once other clubs had finished their squad building. Despite having left Rangers for greener pastures in the past, both were welcomed back to the club with open arms.
Of Rangers’ additions over the summer, one player who stood out most among the squad was Leandro Bazán. The 30 year old Argentine who had agreed to join Dreams before their self-relegation, was given a lifeline when Lee offered him a home with Rangers. However, the midfielder performed so poorly during a preseason match that reportedly, Lee was prepared to loan him out to a First Division club.
Bazán’s fortunes changed once he was asked to play up front as a striker and, as fate would have it, began playing so well that he attracted the attention of scouts in Singapore. In fact, the attention was so intense that Lee signed Stefan Pereira as his replacement, expecting that he would lose Bazán during the season.
In the end, Bazán stayed with Rangers and wound up scoring 12 goals in 13 appearances across all competitions. He is now reportedly in negotiations to join other Premier League clubs – not a bad outcome for someone who wasn’t supposed to join Rangers, a club who weren’t supposed to be in the Premier League.
Although Lee is the public face of Rangers, his business partner Peter Mok is the other half of the club. Known for his temper and fiery demeanour during matches, behind the scenes, he is a father figure at the club who does everything in his power to look after his players and coaches.
Ever since the first coronavirus case in Hong Kong was confirmed in late January, the pandemic has left no walk of life spared. Lee, who speaks with Mok on a daily basis, confirmed that Mok’s company, Biu Chun Watch Hands, have lost half their business during the pandemic while the club’s other sponsors have lost more than half their businesses. Still, the Rangers president – who chose to remain in Dongguan during the pandemic – insisted that the club had a duty to look after their employees.
“Although our contracts with players and coaches end on May 31, Peter urged me to see which players needed our help after their contracts were up,” claimed Lee. “For the lowest earners, we will continue to pay them half of what their salaries were. For the highest earners, maybe a third.
“He told me: ‘Pay out the remainder of the contracts for foreign players first so that they can go home. As for local players, do whatever we can to help them through this difficult time.’”
Of Rangers’ foreign and naturalized players, only Aender has successfully booked a ticket to leave Hong Kong while Tomas, Bazán and Pablo Leguizamón remain in the city. As for Diego Cañete who recently underwent cervical spine surgery, Lee stated previously that Rangers would arrange to extend his work visa so that he could remain in Hong Kong for rehabilitation. The club have promised to cover all of his medical expenses until he is healthy enough to leave the city.
Despite low salaries, Rangers’ players will fare relatively better during the pandemic than their coaches, many of whom have families to feed. As Lee revealed, “(Co-head coach) Wong Chin-hung has three kids and so does (co-head coach) Chiu Chung-man. (Assistant coach) Lai Ka-fai is married with no kids. We’ve not yet signed new contracts with our coaches but even so, shouldn’t we do the humane thing and provide them with some money when they can’t make a living?
“Look, the coaches have no football matches to coach because of the pandemic. This affects their livelihoods, which is why Peter has promised to take care of them.”
This gesture of compassion has not gone without appreciation from the coaches. “You have seen in the news that a lot of clubs around the world are cutting or deferring salaries, or stopping payments altogether,” said Chiu. “I never imagined that the club would help us coaches in this way.
“In all my years of working for Mr. Mok and Philip, I’ve come to know that they’ll stop at nothing to support their employees. You can ask them for anything – tuition, driving lessons, or a coaching course to upgrade your coaching license – even if it’s in the tens of thousands, Mr. Mok will pay for it out of pocket, no questions asked. There’s no question in my mind that they’re true leaders.”
Another Rangers’ assistant coach, Su Yang, is currently working for Biu Chun in Dongguan. The pandemic is particularly hard for him because his wife recently gave birth to their daughter. Su is now waiting for the pandemic to subside so that he can return to Hong Kong and be reunited with his immediate family, as well as his family at Rangers.
If you ask Lee about the resumption of football, the director will strike a much sterner tone. On April 30, Rangers, along with Yuen Long and Pegasus, notified the Hong Kong Football Association that they would not continue to participate in the 2019-20 season.
“There’s not going to be promotion or relegation so had we carried on, we’d be using the remainder of our league matches to prepare for next season,” Lee claimed. “If each club were only on the hook for $5,000 a match (in operational expenses) and the rest was subsidized by the government like the closed door matches, we might’ve considered continuing. Unfortunately, the HKFA never got back to us, never tried to persuade the clubs to continue so the only choice for us was to take a break.”
He reserved the brunt of his ire for CEO Paul Woodland, saying, “The CEO is responsible for overseeing all operations at the HKFA. Once you realize (the impact of the pandemic), it’s incumbent upon you to sympathize with the clubs. The government provides (the HKFA) with so much annual funding. Could you not take some of that and help the clubs out a little?
“We’re not asking for a lot. We’re not even asking them to pay the players’ salaries. I’m talking about the other operational expenses like venue rental fees, licensing fees, broadcast fees, etc. Our ask is that the HKFA cover the gap between what the government will subsidize and what we’re willing to pay.”
Lee calculates that clubs could save between $200,000 to $300,000 per year under these measures but alas, he has yet to hear a response from the HKFA. He says that he sympathizes with players and coaches who are on year to year contracts because the delay in the start of next season means that they are facing a longer than normal period of time without income.
Although Rangers retain the right to compete in the 2020-21 Premier League, the club have not decided as to whether to exercise that right. “Even if we were to participate, the season won’t start until November,” Lee continued. “So over this gap in time with no football, I’d recommend to players and coaches that they look for another job while they wait for next season to come.”
As other clubs in Hong Kong fail to pay their players on time, buy out their highest earners and ask players to take pay cuts, Rangers remain an outlier for what they are doing. While some might argue that they are only able to continue paying their out of contract employees because their salaries were low to begin with, the fact remains that Rangers have never lied about their finances. The club have gone above and beyond their call of duty, despite having no legal obligation to do so.
To Lee, all of this is simply a debt of gratitude to his players and coaches who have chosen to come to the club, in spite of money. “All of our salaries are low so we have to look after them the best we can,” the director explained. “Conversely, we have a lot of players who are here because of their determination to continue playing as professional footballers.
“Take Kilama, for instance. If I told you what his salary was, you wouldn’t believe me. But it’s players like him that we have to take extra care of because they’re going to stay with us no matter what.”
In addition to Kilama, another player who may remain at Rangers when they return is Tomas. The 35 year old centre back intends to apply for naturalization in August and had nothing but praise when asked about his boss. “Seven years ago, he almost didn’t sign me because he thought I was too small,” he recalled, laughing at the memory. “But seriously, if not for Philip, I might not have found a club this year. Not only did he take me in, but he also gave me the captain’s armband. I’m really thankful for what he’s done for me.”
Money can buy a lot of good players, perhaps a great team, or even a trophy. Rangers wouldn’t know any of that, but it doesn’t matter to them. Their lack of investment in elite players is balanced by their investment in building strong relationships with the players that they do have.
And while the club may continue to lose on the pitch, one thing Rangers have never lost is their humanity.