Published: 13:59, June 4, 2021 | Updated: 18:01, June 4, 2021
Future for Happy Valley remains uncertain
By Tobias Zuser

Allegedly many Happy Valley players are still waiting for their salaries but they still finished the season with a hard-fought 3-3 draw. (PHOTO COURTESY OF HKFA)

The 2020/2021 Hong Kong Premier League has finally come to an end. One week after Kitchee had won the championship in a last-day decider against Eastern, four clubs – Southern, Rangers, Resources Capital, and Happy Valley – also concluded the relegation group.

While the Hong Kong Football Association has announced that relegation would be suspended for another year, the teams were still competing for a cash prize of HK$200,000, which was previously put forward by HKFA vice-chairman Matthew Wong. On Sunday, May 30, three of the four clubs still had the chance to win that award, promising a worthy end to the season.

At Mong Kok Stadium, Southern – once again – stumbled over newcomers Resources Capital, who celebrated a 2-1 win courtesy of goals by Cheng King-ho and Yue Tze-nam. It was the second time that the men in Pink defeated the Aberdeeners this year, and with a total of five wins they indeed fared much better than many would have expected a few months back. The victory also made sure that they finished in seventh place in the final league table, leaving Happy Valley behind them. The Greens finished their extremely disappointing season by drawing 3-3 with Rangers, which could not change their fate of holding onto the red lantern. Valley equalized three times that evening, but in the end the draw was enough for Rangers to bag the HK$200,000 cheque as the best team in the relegation round – with one win and two draws.

HKFA head coach Mixu Paatelainen hopes to salvage a point against Iraq and Bahrain. (PHOTO COURTESY OF HKFA)

While Rangers were celebrating, Happy Valley director Poon Man-tik also confirmed what many local fans have feared for a while: The club is in serious financial troubles, and the future is more than uncertain. Allegedly, many of the players have not received their salaries for several months. If the situation cannot be resolved in the coming weeks, it is very unlikely that Happy Valley would remain in the Premier League next season.

Previous years have shown that the survival in Hong Kong’s topflight is indeed a very difficult operation, which comes without any guarantee. Recent victims include Tai Po, Yuen Long, Dreams FC, and South China – and arguably the uncertainty of the pandemic has added another challenge. If Happy Valley really were to drop out, the HKFA will need to convince at least one First Division team to seek promotion. Soon-to-be champions Hong Kong FC will most likely retain their amateur status, while runners-up North District, Sha Tin, Sham Shui Po, Wing Yee, or South China have yet to declare their interest to get promoted – which would always come with a significant financial burden.

Nonetheless, the more established sides of the league have already started with the preparation for next season. Sandro, Lucas Silva, and Diego Eli all confirmed their departure from Eastern, with the latter having already signed for future title contenders Lee Man. Probably the most surprising news was the resignation of Eastern head coach Lee Chi-kin. While he will stay at the club as a technical advisor, the management has yet to decide on his successor. In the meantime, assistant coach Roberto Losado will be caretaker during the upcoming AFC Cup round, which is scheduled for the end of June and will take place in Hong Kong.

The new CEO of the HKFA, Joaquin Tam, confirmed that the squads of the visiting sides have been submitted to the immigration authorities for quarantine exemption. The teams are required to stay in their designated hotel bubbles and players will only be allowed to leave for training and matches. Besides Hong Kong Stadium, Tam also mentioned that Tseung Kwan O Sports Ground will be used as an additional venue for the games. Meanwhile, the AFC have generally given green light to open the matches for spectators, but the HKFA is still waiting for final approval from the government.

Matthew Orr and Diego Eli mad their debut for the HKFA team. (PHOTO COURTESY OF HKFA)

HKFA team play World Cup qualifiers in Bahrain’s Covid-19 bubble

However, for the next two weeks the focus will be shifting entirely to the HKFA team, who have traveled to Bahrain to compete in the ongoing World Cup qualification round with matches against Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain all scheduled within 13 days. Fernando, who recently obtained his HKSAR passport holder, has withdrawn due to injury, while forward Sandro opted not to participate as he is currently out of contract and is therefore without any safety net.

Nonetheless, head coach Mixu Paatelainen tried his best to put together a competitive team. On Thursday evening, June 3, the HKFA team took on Iran with Matthew Orr, Leung Kwun-chung, and Diego Eli making their debut. Overall, the expectations against one of Asia’s top teams have been humble, and Iran always seemed to be in control of the game. But Paatelainen’s men still showed a disciplined performance. Although they conceded early in the first half, they were able to avoid greater damage. Despite being down 3-0 after 85 minutes, the HKFA representatives were rewarded with an unexpected consolation goal. Matthew Orr’s header bounced off the bar and 24-year-old Cheng Siu-kwan carried it over the line.

The team has now several days to rest and to prepare for the next games against Iraq on 12 June and Bahrain on 16 June.

With five points out of six matches, the HKFA side can realistically finish fourth in the group, leaving only Cambodia behind them, who were just thrashed 8-0 by Bahrain. So, while the World Cup is already out of reach, the team is still in contention for the 2023 Asian Cup. However, after DPRK withdrew from the competition altogether, all results against fifth-placed teams in the qualifiers are not counted when determining the ranking of the fourth-placed teams, which means that the HKFA team may not directly go into the third qualifying round, but instead have to compete in a play-off to earn that spot, where they would face the likes of Maldives, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, or Indonesia. Hence, any point in the remaining matches could be crucial, which should keep the team motivated until the end.