South China could be playing in AFC Champions League next season
Hong Kong First Division champions South China could be playing in next season's top tier continental competition via a play-off spot
South China could find themselves fighting for a place in next season's AFC Champions League after the Asian Football Confederation opened the door for Hong Kong to take part in the region's top club competition despite the city still lacking a fully professional league set-up.
South China, the defending league champions, have raised their hands for a solitary play-off spot being made available to the city for the 2014 AFC Champions League. The play-offs will take place in February and March next year.
"The AFC wants more countries represented in the Champions League and has informed us that one play-off spot could be available for Hong Kong next year," said Mark Sutcliffe, Hong Kong Football Association chief executive. "We have been a bit cheeky and asked for two, putting forward the names of South China and Kitchee.
"But if only one is available, South China will get it on sporting merit as league champions."
The AFC will decide on South China's application on November 15.
Although local clubs take part in the second-tier competition - the AFC Cup - Hong Kong teams are barred from playing at the elite level. This year 32 clubs played in the Champions League, which on Saturday reaches its climax with Guangzhou Evergrande hosting FC Seoul in the second leg of the final. The first leg was drawn 2-2.
"At the moment, clubs from Hong Kong are not eligible to take part because the league, venues, and the clubs themselves are not considered to be of the requisite standard," Sutcliffe said. "The AFC know that we are trying to improve and that we have the ambition to establish a new Premier League next season.
"Along with a number of other countries we have been invited to put forward our clubs to apply for a play-off place in the 2014 Champions league. In other words, we don't have to wait until our new league is established," added Sutcliffe, who was not certain how many play-off spots would be available.
With an eye on raising the number of countries - at present only 14 are represented - in the premier club competition, the Asian governing body has relaxed the eligibility rules and opened it up under an "extraordinary application" process. AFC officials were in Hong Kong in August to inspect facilities and meet local clubs interested in competing in the play-offs.
"Only South China and Kitchee agreed to meet with the AFC team and have submitted their applications. The other clubs declined," Sutcliffe revealed.
"They inspected Hong Kong Stadium, which meets the criteria of an 'A class' stadium for home matches."
South China head coach Cheung Po-chun welcomed the possibility of the Caroliners playing at the highest level. "It will be good for local soccer, no doubt about that. Obviously, we will have to be stronger to be able to compete at that level, but we'll have to wait and see what happens to our bid first before we start thinking about that," he said.
Both South China and Kitchee have qualified for next season's AFC Cup. But if South China are accepted into the Champions League play-offs, they will not be able to play in the second-tier competition.