The move to suspend Happy Valley and Tuen Mun from the First Division is a strong message that the Hong Kong Football Association is serious about "cleaning up" the sport as it looks towards a new professional era, said senior official Mark Sutcliffe last night.
The clubs have been kicked out of the top flight after an HKFA investigation found that they had brought the game into disrepute and were not viable to continue playing as they fell short in terms of governance, financial status and operational abilities.
"We hope this will send a strong message that the HKFA is serious about cleaning up the sport in terms of the governance and financial stability of the clubs," said Sutcliffe, HKFA chief executive, yesterday. "This is also an indication of how keen we are to raise playing standards as we look ahead to the new Hong Kong Premier League next season."
The financial situation of Happy Valley and Tuen Mun changed dramatically mid-season, leading both clubs to inform the HKFA that they were not able to fulfil their financial obligations for the rest of the season.
Tuen Mun had deregistered 11 players and terminated an agreement with a mainland backer last month. Around the same time, things took a turn for the worse for Happy Valley when the ICAC took away a number of Happy Valley players after a match.
Investigations are still continuing on this front.
"Our investigations had nothing to do with match-fixing," stressed Sutcliffe.
"We took a decision to suspend both clubs simply because they have brought the game into disrepute by not being able to meet their financial obligations and due to their governance. We felt it was not viable for both clubs to continue for the rest of the season," he said.
With both clubs having had mainland backers, the HKFA was looking at setting stringent rules on financial transparency for next season, Sutcliffe said.
"The criteria we will have in place will include a 'fit and proper person' test which will look into the background of the people behind the clubs. This will minutely examine the people who back the clubs financially. We want everything to be transparent, so that we don't come up with situations like this again," said Sutcliffe.
This is the first time that two clubs have been suspended by the HKFA in recent times.
The suspension of Happy Valley and Tuen Mun will result in the promotion-relegation system being deferred at the end of this season. This means the club at the bottom of the 10-team standings remain in the First Division.
Nine of these teams have confirmed that they intend to apply for a Hong Kong Premier League licence. There will be 12 licences available, so three will be open for other club applications. Sutcliffe said Happy Valley and Tuen Mun had indicated that they wanted to apply for the new licence.
"We will take a decision on this at the next board meeting and it will be based on 'sporting merit'," Sutcliffe said.
The HKFA had also considered the current league table and decided that the results of all of the matches played by the two clubs this season will not be included.