Former Happy Valley players, Chung Wai-ho and Siu Chi-ho, retired from professional football after the club’s demise, choosing instead to find more stable sources of income. Neither player is impressed by the lack of recourse from the HKFA.
Happy Valley’s latest foray into professional football ended in July when the team decided to withdraw from the Premier League. Players and coaches at the club had been working for free since at least December 2020 when boss Chen Zhishi stopped funding the club.
Of the 33 first team players on the squad at the end of last season, 28 have found new clubs. Of the remaining five, all are over the age of 23 and nearly all of them have been forced to confront the reality that their days as professional footballers are over.
Chung Wai-ho and Siu Chi-ho are two such players. Chung, who has a wife and daughter, now works full time as a delivery driver. Siu, on the other hand, chose to become an insurance broker.
Both players spoke to the media recently about their decisions to leave the professional ranks and their frustration with the inaction by the Hong Kong Football Association.
It’s 11:30 pm at night. After a training session with Second Division club Kowloon City, Chung Wai-ho begins his shift as a truck driver, delivering loaves of bread for a local bakery. Chung began working as a trucker when he was 23, not long after he signed his first professional contract with then-newly promoted Yuen Long.
“At the time, I did it because my salary was low: I only made several thousand a month,” the keeper told Stand News. “It wasn’t easy for me. I trained in the morning, but I did deliveries overnight. So, the only solution was to try my best to stay awake until training was over.”
Earlier in his career, Chung had been part of the HKFA’s Hong Kong 09 developmental side and later spent two years in the Eastern Reserves. However, after a single season at Yuen Long in 2013-14, he was discarded, and toiled in the lower divisions for five years before returning to the top flight with Happy Valley in 2019.
Chung continues to work overnight shifts even though he no long plays as a professional. On the weekends, he plays for Kowloon City, where his earnings are limited to transportation expenses.
Through the night, Chung makes 24 to 25 stops in total, from Aberdeen to Causeway Bay to Wan Chai. He breaks for no more than ten minutes at a time.
“If I said this wasn’t hard, I’d be lying to you,” he said. “But I have to hang in there until the morning, at least.”
Chung was on $22,000 a month last season at Happy Valley and is owed his salary for the months of January through June. Including bonuses, he estimates that he is owed $160,000 in total.
Like Chung, Siu Chi-ho decided to call an end to his professional career this season. Although he has joined Chung at Kowloon City, his chosen career path is the insurance industry.
The full back joined Kwai Tsing’s academy when he was 15, but it was not until he was 21 that he decided to try and make it as a professional footballer. In 2017, Siu was part of the Hong Kong futsal squad which competed at the National Championships in Wuhan and at the Asian Indoor Games in Turkmenistan.
“I came back from [Turkmenistan] with eyes wide open,” he told Inmediahk. “After I returned, I was more motivated than ever to use football as a platform to prove myself to the world.”
The seeds of Siu’s move to Happy Valley were planted a year prior to his trip to Turkmenistan when Chelsea Soccer School founder Ben Lam invited the full back to join Third Division club Tung Sing. Siu, who was a pupil at the School, obliged, as did many of his teammates. In 2018, Siu and his mates would move once again to Valley where Lam had become one of the club’s directors.
The 25-year-old stayed with Valley when the club were promoted to the Premier League, but a torn ACL suffered during training in July 2019 meant that he did not make his professional debut until September 2020.
Despite signing as a professional, Siu always had a back up plan in mind. For three years, his daily routine consisted of training in the morning at Kowloon Bay Football Pitch and attending classes at EdUHK in the afternoon. After graduation, Siu worked as a substitute teacher but quickly realized that the teaching profession was not for him.
Upon the advice of former Valley teammate Michael Cheng, Siu took a part-time job as an insurance broker, which allowed him to earn supplemental income alongside his professional footballing duties. The full back has since transitioned to selling insurance full time.
Siu earned $12,000 a month during the 2019-20 season and was given a raise to $14,000 a month for the 2020-21 season. He claims that the club owe him $130,000 in arrears, not to mention the fact that he had a year remaining on his deal.
Ever since the club encountered arrears, Siu alleges that Lam, the man who brought him to the club, has made excuse after excuse for why the club have failed their obligation to pay its players.
“We thought that, sure, it was a bad look for the club but at least they’re run by Lam and [Hong Kong Football Association chairman] Pui Kwan-kay,” Siu said. “They’re rich men. We thought there was no way they wouldn’t at least pay us something. But in hindsight, that was naïve. If we had taken immediate action, we might’ve been able to force Pui’s hand.”
However, unbeknownst to the players at the time, Pui had secretly resigned as a director of Happy Valley Football Club Limited – the company he had co-founded, along with Chen Zhishi, to manage the club – in December. Although he remains the head of Happy Valley Athletic Association, he has repeatedly denied knowledge of the football club’s financial troubles and any personal responsibility to help resolve the club’s dire straits.
“I made a three part agreement with the Athletic Association, including not to invest any money or take part in management,” Pui said, in response to questions about his role. “Unpaid salaries are governed by relevant labour laws so I will not get involved. The Happy Valley Athletic Association is a non-profit entity, so we do not have assets and thus, it is impossible for us to run a professional side. That is why the private company was established and why they are separate.”
Pui argued that for the HKFA to punish Valley would be outside the purview of the organization and unjust given the state of the economy. But when asked about the dire situation of the players, the chairman was unsympathetic.
“You think the players are in a horrible situation? Well, so what?” he responded, clearly uncomfortable with being challenged. “Everyone is in a horrible situation. I can’t even open my restaurants! In the past two years, starting from the social unrest to the pandemic, none of my businesses can operate as normal. What has happened to me has been worse than what’s happened to most people!”
Neither Siu nor Chung were impressed with the reaction of the chairman.
“There’s a team in the First Division that still plays under the name ‘Happy Valley’, yet they still haven’t paid up last season’s salaries” said an outraged Siu. “The most egregious part about [Pui’s] comments is that he’s the chairman of the HKFA. He’s got a responsibility to deal with the fact that players still haven’t been paid.”
“The HKFA have not been helpful to us at all,” added Chung. “We, the players, have had to do everything on our own, including meeting with the Labour Department and the Labour Tribunal.”
The players thought that they had reached an agreement with Chen in mid-July when the Guangzhou-based businessman agreed to transfer between $300,000 to $400,000 a week to Valley’s bank account until all debts were cleared. In reality, only Razaq Adegbite has been paid his salary in full, while others allege that they have not received a cent.
The players want to take their case to FIFA, but in order to do so, they need the HKFA to initiate contact with FIFA on their behalf. The HKFA, however, claim that the players have yet to turn in all of the relevant paperwork and insist that the matter of unpaid wages be handled by the Labour Tribunal. It should be noted that the players claim that they have not received any response from the HKFA to date.
“I can only hope that Chen will do the right thing [and pay],” Siu said, ruefully. “If the boss knows ahead of time that his funds are limited, then he should’ve only committed for one season. Everyone would’ve appreciated the transparency. But to drag everyone into this situation is irresponsible.”
For his part, Chen did respond to a request for comment from Stand News but he did not reveal much more than was already known.
“The pandemic has had a massive effect on our company because we’re in the agriculture industry,” he stated. “This has meant changes to how much we can sell, which has hurt our bottom line. If sales are slow then obviously, that will limit how much I can remit to the club.”
Chen insisted that he still expects to pay back all of the players by year’s end, but the players are not taking him at his word. In September, the players went back to the Labour Department and were granted a revocation of their claim against the businessman. This allowed the players to claim relief benefits from the Protection of Wages on Insolvency Fund, though the maximum benefit one can receive is $36,000.
“Of course, I’m not happy [with the situation],” Chung confided. “But if I can recover $30,000, then maybe I’ll consider it a consolation prize. [But getting back the full] $160,000 is the big prize. You can do a lot with that money. I can leave it for my daughter if she has any needs in the future or wants to attend university.”
When the Professional Footballers Association of Hong Kong held open training sessions for free agent players in August, both Chung and Siu were absent from the sessions, having long accepted that the writing was on the wall.
“I contacted Resources Capital [for a job] but nothing came of it,” Siu admitted. “I didn’t go to the training sessions because, at the end of the day, the market is poor. I have to face the truth.”
“The market is only getting worse and worse. I didn’t see a way forward,” the keeper said. “The world is full of lies and empty promises. I’d rather focus on things that are tangible. We were promised [by Happy Valley] that we would be paid out in full, but until I receive my money, I won’t believe anything. What is tangible right now is to work hard and do my job.
“My main motivation is that I want to make enough money for my wife and daughter to live more comfortably. So, to achieve that, I agree to do a few more stops along my shift. In the transportation industry, all that matters is whether you can put up with the hard work.”
And in the football industry, all that matters is whether you can put up with the heartache.