Published: 09:32, June 10, 2021 | Updated: 17:42, June 10, 2021
HKFA team hopes for direct spot in Asian Cup qualifiers
By Tobias Zuser

Head coach Mixu Paatelainen hopes to salvage a point in the remaining games. (PHOTO COURTESY OF HKFA)

Following the recent 3-1 loss to Iran in the World Cup qualification round, it is now absolutely certain that Qatar 2022 will take place without the HKFA team. However, there is still much to play for in the remaining two games against Iraq and Bahrain in order to keep the hope for the 2023 Asian Cup alive. 

The HKFA team is currently fourth in their group, but only the best fourth-placed teams will get a direct spot in the next qualifying round for the Asian Cup, which will be hosted by China two years from now. Currently, the Hong Kong SAR footballers are on the verge of losing out on the quota, with Afghanistan, India, and Maldives all lurking to leapfrog their rivals on the last matchday. While success against group leaders Iraq on June 12 is rather unlikely, the focus will be on the Bahrain game on June 16, for which a draw would not be an entirely unrealistic outcome. With an additional point, the HKFA team would most likely proceed directly to the Asian Cup qualifying round and could avoid having to participate in another play-off round between the lowest-ranked sides in Asia. 

So far, the organization of the tournament bubble in Bahrain’s capital Manama has been very smooth, and HKFA player Leung Kwun-chung has recently shared some insights about the local conditions. Except for the daily training sessions and the occasional matches, the teams are all confined to the hotel, but they still enjoy access to gym and spa. 

“From the day we landed in Bahrain, we’ve undergone testing for coronavirus”, Leung explains. “After testing we were transported to our hotel, but because our test results were not immediately available, no one was allowed to leave their hotel room.” Since then, players have been tested regularly. Recently, Iraqi defender Ali Faez was found positive, and he has been immediately quarantined following the established protocol of the Asian Football Confederation. Nonetheless, the remaining games are expected to go ahead as scheduled, provided that no more cases are found in the coming days. 

One of the biggest challenges so far has been the weather in Manama, with up to 38 degrees Celsius during the day. “Temperature wise, it’s quite hot”, says Leung. “The biggest difference with Hong Kong is that it’s not as humid. That has made it easier for us to acclimate.” The assigned training ground may not be the most ideal in terms of pitch quality, but it still allows the team to conduct the match preparations as planned. 

Roberto Affonso is expected to return to the starting eleven after his suspension. (PHOTO COURTESY OF HKFA)

Number of professional clubs in local league still unknown

Meanwhile, the future for the Hong Kong Premier League is still uncertain. Troubled with a lack of resources, Happy Valley have not been able to secure any more funding and the chances for the team to remain in the top-flight are very slim. In fact, the players have already been informed that they would be allowed to leave the club for free, including popular talents such as former Manchester United youth player Charlie Scott and Nigerian forward Robert Odu. To make matters worse, until now no team from the First Division has expressed any interest in promotion, which could mean that the Premier League could face a historic low of just seven clubs, undermining the overall attractiveness and competitiveness of the competition and making it even harder for some of the abandoned players to find a new club for the coming season. This highlights once again the plight of local footballers, with some of them looking for a way out. The latest prominent retiree is 25-year-old Wong Lok, who appeared in 15 games for Resources Capital last season but decided to hang up his boots once and for all given the humble prospects for a fulfilling career. In other news, Eastern striker Lucas Silva has also announced his departure from Hong Kong after a five year stint, which saw him winning two championships with Kitchee after making a name for himself with district team Tai Po, with which he won the Sapling Cup in 2016/17. 

Nonetheless, over the coming two weekends, Hong Kong’s three amateur divisions will be wrapped up as well, having adopted a singe round-robin system due to the long break caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the First Division, Hong Kong Football Club are already the confirmed champions, seven points ahead of runners-up North District. HKFC are still undefeated and it looks rather unlikely that anyone would be able to challenge their flawless streak of eleven wins. While North District are on track to finish second, the third place is still in reach for several teams, including Sham Shui Po, South China, Wing Yee, and Sha Tin. 

The title of the Second Division is going to be an open race between the history-charged sides of Double Flower and Tung Sing. In the lowest tier, King Mountain, also known as Ravia Group, are expected to win the championship this year, with Sun Hei following close behind.