Season of promise looks good for fans
THE Hong Kong Football Association (HKFA) enters a new era when the 1995-96 season kicks off today with a new league format and a sponsorship package which should see the territory's most powerful association through the post '97 years.
The First Division takes on a J.League look with two stages of competition.
The first stage of the league should be completed by January and the second stage by June. The winners of each stage will meet in a Grand Final.
The HKFA are hoping the J.League's phenomenal success will rub off on the domestic scene where soccer is the most popular team sport in the territory.
Probably the best thing that could have happened to the HKFA is their association with ISL Asia Pacific, the marketing firm who will handle or be responsible for sponsoring all domestic competitions as well as the national squad.
On the field, triple defending league champions Eastern start their campaign with less ambitions after suffering a double blow in June with the withdrawal of their major sponsor and the resignation of team manager Peter Leung.
A exodus of players followed as the most successful club for the past three years were reduced from Hong Kong's number one team to an outfit which will definitely struggle for First Division survival.
Only goalkeeper Iain Hesford, striker Dale Tempest, the leading Hong Kong goalscorer for five of the past six years, and midfielder Keung Heung-fai, survive from the old team.
Eastern's demise should suit arch-rivals South China as the Caroliners look, on paper, to be the most powerful team in the territory.
With the acquisition of Eastern skipper and winger Lee Kin-wo and live-wire left-back Ricky Cheng Siu-chung, South China may be more lethal than ever before.
Brazilian Aurelio looks like one of the best buys of last season adding more depth to South China's already solid defence.
South China are spoilt for choice in midfield and attack, having at their disposal the silky talents of Bosnian striker Alen Bajkusa, Portuguese Pedro Xavier and local striker Au Wai-lun.
Rangers, after their unexpected success last season when they won the Senior Challenge Shield and the FA Cup, have made a few changes but still lack depth upfront with Yugoslav Marco Kraljevic their only out-and-out striker.
Golden have a look about them which suggest that they will go further than their third-place finish of last season.
Eastern's talented midfielder Lo Kai-wah is their most significant buy last summer.
Bosnian striker Anto Grabo also joins Scottish forward Lee Bullen after the team suffered the loss of Bajkusa, who has since returned to South China after having a successful season with Golden.
If there is a club who could make an impact, it should be Frankwell, winners of the recent seven-a-side President's Cup. Fourth in the league last season, the former Second Division champions have already displayed a ruggedness and professional attitude in the President's Cup which should augur well in the league.
Former Crystal Palace striker Murray Jones is probably the club's most significant buy apart from local-born attacking midfielder Tim Bredbury.
Viceroy Cup champions Sing Tao are also strong contenders for the league championship.
The Tigers have made two significant signings with centre-half Rudi Hedman, another ex-Crystal Palace player, and goalkeeper Darren Collier of Blackburn Rovers.
Instant-Dict will be looking for their elusive first title - either in league or cup - after appearing on the losing end in five finals.
Their most significant signing is Eastern centre-half Tim O'Shea, and together with another ex-Eastern player, winger Ross Greer, Instant-Dict can compete with a bit more confidence.