Fans' support in the balance as new season gets under way
A SEASON of uncertainty awaits as the new Hong Kong soccer campaign kicks off today, with the Hong Kong Football Association (HKFA) facing two-pronged pressure on crowd attendances: the lingering memories of a match-fixing scandal and a severe economic downturn.
These are tough times for the HKFA and for senior clubs who have limited their spending as they face the prospect of seeing another forgettable season roll by.
The match-fixing scandal that resulted in the jailing of Sing Tao winger Chan Tsz-kong could not have come at a worse time for the HKFA, which is trying to boost crowd attendances already hit hard by the economic depression.
Crowd attendances were down 25 per cent last season, although gate receipts were slightly higher.
Chan was banned for life from football for his part in a match-rigging syndicate.
He pleaded guilty to pocketing a $200,000 bribe to fix the result of a World Cup qualifying match, which Thailand won 2-0 in Bangkok.
But, apart from a tarnished image, the HKFA will face a greater foe in the depressing economic situation.
The economic downturn has forced most of the eight clubs in the senior league to tighten purse strings. But this has not stopped South China from becoming the only local club to employ the services of a foreign coach.
The Caroliners hold out high hopes that Casemiro Mior will guide them back to their former glories.
As a result of the tight budgets, spectators will see fewer new faces and less top signings, leaving little hope for top-class soccer.
The situation has become bleak to the point that it will be a battle of survival for one club, Sing Tao. The Tigers have decided to stay in the senior league, even though they appeared on the brink of collapse two months ago.
Although Sing Tao have pulled themselves together and have pledged to compete, they are unlikely to make an impact in any of the four competitions.
South China and arch-rivals Instant-Dict will make an impact though, and the two top clubs are expected to grind it out again for the league championship.
On the transfer market, South China came out the stronger of the two.
They have signed three South Americans - Brazilian defenders Preigchadt Cordeiro and Ailton Grigorio de Araujo and Paraguayan forward Fernando Ornelas - while acquiring the services of 1996 Hong Kong Footballer of the Year Ricky Cheng Siu-chung from Instant-Dict.
Cheng rejoins South China, with whom he won the league title two seasons ago. The 25-year-old forward leaves the Dickies with somewhat of a hole to fill, although the champions' main worry will be whether local goalkeeper Chung Ho-yin can live up to his promise.
Instant's back four is expected to be difficult to break down, with combative Bulgarian defender Dimitre Kalkanov - the first foreign player to win the Hong Kong Footballer of the Year award last season - sure to pose problems.
Happy Valley will be hoping to live up to the early season promise that they generated when they won the Senior Challenge Shield last term. Valley have been playing some solid football over the past few seasons, finishing third in the league this past season.
One of their more interesting signings is Hong Kong international defender Sammy Wong Wai-tak, who was signed from Instant-Dict.
Rangers and newly promoted Sai Kung Friends are unlikely to be strong contenders in any competition, although the latter showed they have the ability to upset by defeating South China 3-1 in a friendly recently.
Yee Hope have also made a dip into the market and have appeared to have come up trumps with the signing of former Happy Valley striker Paul Ritchie, who is expected to make an even bigger impact than he did three seasons ago for his old Hong Kong club.
Ritchie was the leading goalscorer in Britain when he helped Hamilton Academical win promotion to the Scottish First Division two seasons ago with 34 goals.
Yee Hope have also acquired the services of former Brazilian left-winger Antonio Rinaldo Goncalves. It will be interesting to see whether the two can strike a partnership that is almost as uncertain as the season's overall prospects.