HK showpiece forced to accept two local teams

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 December, 2008, 12:00am

A proposal to field two domestic teams in the showpiece Lunar New Year Cup is further proof Hong Kong is feeling the bite of the economic downturn.

While Czech champions Sparta Prague and newly crowned South Korean champions Suwon Bluewings constitute the confirmed international contingent for next month's tournament, a Hong Kong League XI and a joint club team will now likely make up the two other places.

'We face a lot of difficulties in securing quality overseas teams for the annual event,' said Hong Kong Football Association general secretary Lam Shing-kui.

'The appearance fees of top teams have been skyrocketing and many top European sides are either busy with their own domestic league competitions or are enjoying complete rest during their winter breaks.'

Lam said a plan to get Shanxi Zhongxin from the China Super League (CSL) had been abandoned because they lacked star players to attract the fans.

'The mainlanders have just completed their season and all their teams are busy preparing for next season with players coming and going.

'Although Shanxi finished fourth last season, no one can guarantee what team they'd come up with if they came to Hong Kong next month. CSL champions Shandong Luneng have also been considered but were rejected for similar reasons and because of their high asking fee.'

It is believed the club selection team will consist of players from league champions South China and newly-crowned Senior Shield winners TSW Pegasus.

Lam said the new format would work if they put the two Hong Kong sides against each other in the first round, meaning fans would be guaranteed a final between a home team and one of the foreign sides.

The two-day showpiece will be held on the first and fourth days of the Lunar New Year at Hong Kong Stadium on January 26 and 29.

Lam said every effort would be made to keep a lid on ticket prices, with the highest prices expected to be less than HK$200.

Last year, the League XI defeated Penarol of Uruguay and Croatian side Hajduk Split to claim the trophy, but they are likely to find Sparta and Suwon much tougher opponents.

Managed by Korean legend Cha Bum-keun, Suwon have won a host of domestic and continental honours, including four K-League titles since 1998. They were also winners of the AFC Champions League in 2001 and 2002.

Of their current squad, goalkeeper Lee Woon-jae has played for South Korea in three World Cups (1994, 2002 and 2006), while midfielders Song Chong-gug and Lee Chun-soo were both members of the 2002 and 2006 squads.

Doubling up

Hong Kong will have two sides in next month's Lunar New Year Cup alongside Sparta Prague and Suwon Bluewings: 2