ERNEST Borel have pulled out of Hongkong football after spending about HK$25 million and winning two trophies during their three seasons in the First Division.
The management of the Kwai Chung-based Swiss watch manufacturing company made the announcement at Mongkok Stadium yesterday, shortly after the team were beaten 1-0 by Eastern in the Hongkong FA Cup final.
The company will redirect millions of dollars earmarked on the football club over the next two years into motor racing at the Macau Grand Prix and into sports promotions in China, the site of increasingly extensive business.
The scenes on the pitch and in the dressing room after yesterday's game were in stark contrast to last season, when Borel celebrated their second trophy of the year after beating Instant-Dict 1-0.
The announcement came as a shock to some of the players and officials but was expected by others.
Borel chairman Thomas Tang Kwok-wah said: ''I feel sad and sorry the club has to quit but this is what the world of commerce is all about.
''Sometimes things go well and other times they don't and we have to accept that.
''The company have decided not to invest in the football club for any further seasons because they are moving more into China and are concentrating on that.
''It is a pity it has to come after only three seasons but I feel proud that in that time we made our mark on Hongkong football.
''The players are all free to go to other clubs and I am sure they will have no trouble getting fixed up because they are quality players.'' Borel joined the Hongkong First Division for the 1990-91 season after taking over the registration held by the Sea Bee Athletic Association.
Although club president Steven Lam Wai-wah said he had bought the registration from Sea Bee and would hold on to it, a spokesman for the Hongkong Football Association said the registration reverted to Sea Bee.
With another backer interested in moving in, officials of all parties were expected to meet early this week.
With a modest budget of $5 million for the first season, Borel finished fourth in the table by winning eight and drawing five of their 18 league games. There were no trophies in that first season, however, as South China completed a grand slam of league, Shield, Viceroy Cup and FA Cup.
After a slow start to the 1991-92 season, the club's fortunes prospered following the signing from Singapore of Australian midfielder Craig Foster, who inspired them to victory over South China in the Viceroy Cup final and over Instant-Dict in the FA Cup final.
A budget of HK$10 million had brought two trophies and, by retaining virtually the same line-up and with the same budget for this season, Borel had high hopes of challenging for the league title.
But Borel won only two of their opening 10 league and cup matches and rumours began that the company would pull out if the team's form did not improve.
Although they reached their first final of the season by beating South China 1-0 in the FA Cup semi-final, the company had already decided that an initial five-year investment would be stopped after only three seasons.
After a holiday in Hawaii, Foster will try to move to a club in Japan's new professional J-League.
Striker Keith Thompson, whose previous clubs include English Premier League side Coventry City and Spanish club Oviedo, wants to stay in Hongkong after two seasons with Borel.
''We saw this coming but it's still a bit of a surprise because I have never been in this position before. But this is what happens with company football.
''Now we will train on Tuesday and Wednesday, play our last game on Thursday and try to get sorted out before going home next week.'' Hongkong international Au Wai-lun, who scored the winning goal in last season's Viceroy Cup win, added: ''I expected it because of all the uncertainty in the past few weeks.
''I am not worried, though, because I have the chance to sign for two clubs next season - South China or Instant-Dict.'' Goalkeeper Chan Shu-ming is expected to sign for Happy Valley, while defenders Tam Ah-fook and Choy Wai-man could join Sing Tao.
Club president Lam is offering the team a bonus of $100,000 to win Thursday's last match against Eastern.