What does the HKFA have in store for the Premier League, the national team and the development of women’s football? Details below.
Having dedicated Part 1 to grassroots football, we now turn our attention to the Premier League and the national teams. Both represent the senior expression of Hong Kong football which the five-year plan ultimately seeks to improve.
Single year calendar
When the Vision 2025 consultations took place in January, the HKFA announced that they sought to switch Hong Kong football to a single year calendar. The main reason cited in the document is that most AFC members operate their seasons from March to November which, according to their opinion, leaves Hong Kong at a disadvantage in international play during the September and June FIFA windows. Players are still building their fitness back up in September whilst some players may not have played any football for several weeks heading into June.
The HKFA plans to make the gradual switch by holding the final dual year season in 2021-22. The leagues sanctioned by the organization will then play a mini season from September 2022 to December 2022 before taking a short break. The 2023 season shall begin in late February and end in late November.
Now, it should be noted that it is only the East Asian leagues which tend to follow a single year calendar. Leagues in West Asia, with few exceptions, follow the dual year calendar used in most of the world.
The questions regarding its feasibility, of course, are another matter. Unlike some of its East Asian neighbours, playing through the hot and humid climate of Hong Kong’s summers will pose a risk to fans and players. There’s also the issue of the rainy season, which occurs mostly during the offseason. Thailand’s recent decision to switch back to a dual year calendar was, in part, driven by a desire to avoid the rainy season and thus, attract more fans.
Supporters of the plan will point to Southeast Asian nations such as Malaysia and Vietnam which currently follow a single year schedule. They will claim that challenges posed by heat can be abated by playing most matches at night during the summer. To that end, the HKFA seeks to work with the Home Affairs Bureau and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department to increase the number of sports grounds which can facilitate evening football by upgrading their lighting to 1,200 lux or above.
Malaysian Super League matches kick off at 9:00 pm during the summer while V. League matches kick off at 6:00 pm or later. If the Premier League is to follow a summer schedule, they will likely need to emulate this type of scheduling to avoid the warmest part of the day.
But have fans been consulted on this? Have fans indicated that they will turn up for evening football in the summer? There are reasonable doubts that families would still attend matches if they were held late at night.
Let’s not forget the lower division leagues will also have to align with the summer calendar. Will most those matches be played during the day or at night? This is an important question as there are few lower division facilities which are capable of hosting night matches.
Speaking of children, the school year breaks during the summer as well, which means that the LCSD will have a more difficult time of balancing the needs of summer football programs and clubs in allocating booking times for its pitches. Alleviating this concern will be the notion that families tend to go on holiday during the summer, but that could also mean attendance will be lower for professional matches as well.
To their credit, the HKFA have noted that a consultation exercise still needs to be undertaken before a decision is made.
Creating a database of undiscovered Hong Kongers abroad
The HKFA will develop a strategy to identify overseas players who are eligible to represent Hong Kong, as long as such players are playing in more competitive leagues than the Premier League. When former HKFA CEO Mark Sutcliffe was asked about this in the past, he admitted bluntly that the organization had no actual strategy to identify such players besides word of mouth.
Hearing that such a strategy will be in place is positive news as many Hong Kong fans already take the initiative to scout for players of Hong Kong ancestry. Their dedication is admirable as they use such rigorous methods as scouring the databases of Football Manager and Transfermarkt. These efforts have led fans to “discover” such players as Antoine Viterale and Ryo Fujii, neither of whom, as it turned out, are Hong Kong passport holders.
The document acknowledges that it is in the best interest of the national team to continue to accept naturalized players in order to achieve results in the short term. However, it instructs the national team manager to select players who are either young or were born and raised in Hong Kong for friendly matches if they are of a similar ability in comparison to a naturalized player.
A default formation for the national team
All levels of the national teams, both genders, will use 4-3-3 as their default formation, while sometimes transitioning to a 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1.
A default stadium for the national team
Hong Kong Stadium will be the default stadium for the national team. The HKFA admits in the document that Mong Kok Stadium had been preferred in the past due to its lower capacity but now, the organization will choose the larger stadium and to try and attract 15,000 fans at every home match by the 2020-21 season.
Annual football tournament in Hong Kong
An annual tournament will be held every year involving the national team, a Hong Kong League XI and two other Asian nation teams. The document states that a FIFA window can be chosen for the event, as long as the opposition can participate over a ten day period, but it will require a time during which no other international competitions are scheduled.
This should prove difficult for the HKFA as few such windows of this sort exist. In addition, the national team must participate in either the EAFF E1 Championship qualifiers or the tournament proper every year which shrinks the number of available windows.
What the HKFA should lobby for, instead, is to expand the E1 Championship to eight teams. The tournament will be similar in format to the Suzuki Cup, except that the tournament will be hosted by one nation, the top six nations will qualify automatically, and it will be held in every odd numbered year. Qualifying for the final two nations will occur during the preceding summer or autumn. The teams will be drawn into two groups of four, with the top two in each group advancing to the knockout stage.
There will be a lot of lopsided results, but it will also allow the smaller nations, such as Hong Kong, to play more matches without the need to create an annual tournament of their own. It would also allow developing nations, such as Taiwan and Hong Kong, to test themselves more regularly against the likes of Japan and South Korea.
An independent Premier League
This is an idea that was been floated in the past and most recently by R&F general manager Tyler Kwok. In Vision 2025, the HKFA states that they will continue to operate a club license system, provide match officials and assist clubs in finding stadiums but otherwise, the clubs will be left to fend for themselves.
What has prevented an independent league from coming to fruition thus far has been the cost. The HAB, themselves, doubt this idea will be feasible within the next five years.
Even if the financial concerns over its establishment were solved, the Offside editorial team has concerns over its long term viability. Some of our editors have questioned whether the fights that currently play out between the clubs and the HKFA would simply move to the boardroom of the league?
Others have questioned the degree to which the big clubs and small clubs would get along. Would the big clubs agree to greater revenue sharing under the premise that they would have to share their brand equity to ensure that the smaller clubs survive? If 50% of the profit from every Kitchee kit sold was distributed evenly to the other clubs, would Ken Ng sign off on this? And vice versa, if the big clubs wanted to increase the foreign quota in order to sign more high quality players, would the small clubs accept a potentially widened gap between top and bottom in order to reap in more ticket revenue?
Starting in 2020-21, Hong Kong Stadium, Mong Kok Stadium and Tseung Kwan O Sports Ground will serve up to two tenants each whilst district teams will continue to use stadiums in their own local districts. The document states that “better stadium quality means (an) improved match day experience” and that the Kai Tak Athletics stadium may be an option for clubs to use once it opens in 2023.
This policy is clearly made with the goal of transitioning the Premier League to a single year calendar in 2023 as it will ensure that at least six teams will be able to play night games. The Kai Tak Athletics stadium was mentioned because it will also presumably have suitable lighting.
In terms of match day experience, however, one of the three stadiums is not like the others – Hong Kong Stadium. Regardless of how nice the pitch or the dressing rooms may be, Hong Kong Stadium is cavernous wasteland for Premier League matches. That the HKFA would want up to two teams to use it starting next season, while Yuen Long Stadium and Tsing Yi Sports Ground – both stadiums capable of holding night games – are not mentioned, is baffling. Granted, the former is set to be rebuilt in 2021. However, it remains concerning how the HKFA seems to have ignored fans in the New Territories.
The plan was likely written before Yuen Long and Tai Po’s withdrawals from the Premier League, but in their absence, one would hope that the HKFA would not stand in the way of any club who wants to use Yuen Long Stadium or Tai Po Sports Ground as their home ground. Hong Kong Stadium may be a fine stadium for cup finals – and even that’s debatable – but it shouldn’t be used for Premier League matches.
Clubs to remain at home grounds for three years
Under the old Premier League regulations, district teams have the right to play in any stadium in their respective districts while non-district clubs must choose their home ground for the following season based on the previous season’s table. The HKFA hopes to change this relatively soon.
Starting next season, Premier League clubs are welcome to work with the HKFA on a voluntary basis to manage the match day operations at their home stadiums. The goal is that by 2023, Premier League clubs will manage operations by themselves without the HKFA’s help.
This is a significant detail because in 2023, clubs will pick their home grounds based on the 2021-22 table. Whichever grounds they choose will be each their permanent home ground for at least the next three seasons. The HKFA wants clubs to build a sense of connection with the geographical area in which they’re based, just as the district teams have with their home districts.
This is something that we believe needed to happen yesterday. Lee Man aren’t a district team, but they’ve tried very hard to market themselves as Tseung Kwan O’s team. They should never have been forced to leave Tseung Kwan O Sports Ground on the basis of Eastern’s superior league position during the previous season.
Marquee players and financial fair play
A Financial Control Panel will be established to create a financial fair play policy by the 2021-22 season to improve the financial stability of the clubs. At the same time, the HKFA will allow clubs to sign marquee players outside the limits of financial fair play rules who are either “well known” to Hong Kong fans or have previously played in a World Cup or top European league.
What the HKFA means by “FFP” remains to be seen. If it’s a system where clubs cannot spend more than they make, up to a certain amount, then it will effectively gate-keep and entrench the current big teams. This prevents wealthy businessmen from taking control of small clubs and improving the club’s standing by buying their way to the top. Instead, it ensures that the big clubs will always have more financial resources than the small clubs and prevent challengers.
Similarly, it remains to be seen how the marquee player rule will work in conjunction with FFP. Does the HKFA intend to copy the A-League by instituting a hard cap on salaries – meaning that clubs of any size cannot spend above a certain threshold, with the marquee player’s salary exempt? Or will this be a soft cap where clubs are allowed to spend above a certain threshold, but any amount above the threshold is subject to a luxury tax?
We are cautiously optimistic about the marquee player rule, so long as clubs are realistic about what this entails. The profile of a marquee player is likely to be a player who is coming to Hong Kong for a working holiday, at the end of their career when their legs have gone. In other words, it’s an opportunity for well known players to cash in on their reputation, do minimal amounts of running, go sight seeing on their off days and leave after a year or less. As long as clubs understand the motivations of these players and are fully aware that they will only deliver short term economic value, we see no harm in such a policy.
But, we caution that such players may not actually improve teams in terms of on pitch performance. For example, Krisztián Vadócz was much more important to Kitchee’s sucess than his teammate Diego Forlan during their time at the club. The former is not who the HKFA has in mind in terms of a marquee player while the latter is. However, if Hong Kong football is to improve, clubs need to attract more players like Vadócz and less like Forlan.
A hard cap would prevent clubs from signing more players like the 2018 Hong Kong Footballer of the Year, while a soft cap would still permit it, in theory. The question becomes whether the rules will be written in such a fashion that allows the next Vadócz to be signed, while tacitly acknowledging that a player of his quality will almost always go to one of the big clubs.
Currently, clubs must cap the number of complimentary tickets distributed for every match at 5% of their stadium’s capacity. Under Vision 2025, this cap will be lifted in order to increase the attendance of children, youth team members, academy players and students.
Certainly, any ideas to increase attendance are welcome. Under Aiming High, the HKFA’s target for average attendance during the 2019-20 season was 2,500. As the graph below shows, attendance has actually been in decline since the 2013-14 season.
Clubs must be cautious about handing out free tickets. Once you hand out a ticket for free, you risk creating an impression in someone’s mind that the value of your product is zero. It may be wiser, instead, to offer fans the chance to redeem tickets from a previous match for a discount on any future matches. Or, offering a discounted rate for the first 300 fans who turn up at the stadium.
Stadium rental subsidy
The HKFA will demand that stadium rental fees be capped at $5,000 which would be a welcomed sight for Rangers boss Philip Lee.
Centralized development pathway for talented female players
In a complete 180 from their policy for boys’ football, the HKFA says in Vision 2025 that they want to centralize the pathway for girls. A talent identification program will be in place to select the best players at a young age and have them develop using HKFA coaches. The HKFA argues that unlike the boys’ side of the game, the clubs are simply not ready to develop girls at a high level, so a centralized system is necessary.
We all hope that club football for women improves but without investment, nothing will change. That said, one wonders if the HKFA would better off spending their resources in a way that encourages more girls to play football instead of trying to determine select the best female players at young age.
Working with the Jockey Club, the HKFA could simply try to divide their budget in an equal amount for both men’s and women’s football. The organization should then subsidize 50% of all registration fees for any girl in Hong Kong who wants to play for a youth club team. The Jockey Club would then subsidize the other 50%, meaning that any girl in Hong Kong who wants top play youth football can play free of charge, regardless of race or socioeconomic background. This way, the HKFA can still choose to select the best talent for elite development, while ensuring that no talent is lost.
This wraps up our summary and analysis of Vision 2025. As a reminder, you can read the full document here.