Hong Kong hopefuls' dreams thwarted by passport issue
Kaela-Mei Townson, 13, is excluded from AFC tournament because of documentation rules
Kaela-Mei Townson has dreams of playing for Hong Kong. But the Island School teenager has found herself excluded from an international tournament organised by the Asian Football Confederation next month simply because she does not have a Hong Kong SAR passport.
"She is very disappointed," said dad Adrian Townson. "And she is just one of many of Hong Kong's future sportsmen and women who cannot play for the national team in their chosen sport, despite being born in Hong Kong and having lived all their lives here."
Kaela, 13, is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other girls and boys in local soccer's age groups who, despite being born here, have no future in representing the city because they hold foreign passports.
With this being an Asian Games year - Incheon in South Korea will host the quadrennial games in September - the vexed issue of passport-eligibility has surfaced once more, with the Olympic Council of Asia following the Olympics' criteria of passport-only rules for athletes.
Kaela is not representing the city at an Asian Games or an Olympics, but because the Hong Kong Football Association is a member of Fifa, which also insists on a passport as the official document required for player eligibility and registration, she faces an insurmountable hurdle.
"She is one of many boys and girls being denied the chance to proudly represent Hong Kong in many sports to the detriment of sport as a whole," said Adrian Townson. "Kaela was selected by the HKFA to represent Hong Kong at an international invitational tournament [later this month] and the AFC U-14 Girls' Regional Championship in late May/early June.
"My wife and I are British and have lived here for 17 years. Kaela was born in Hong Kong and has lived here all her life," Townson said. "After consultation with the HKFA and the Immigration Department we know that to officially represent Hong Kong she needs a Hong Kong SAR passport and that the only way to get this will ultimately involve renouncing the British passport.
"We are actively pursuing the Hong Kong passport issue and our investigations into all aspects of this are still ongoing, but it is turning out to be a long process with many complications and we fear it will not be processed in time for next month as registration of players has to take place in advance of the tournament."
Townson, like other parents approached by the Sunday Morning Post, is pushing for the Hong Kong permanent identity card to be used as the eligibility document for local athletes.
"We understand that Fifa require a passport as the official document to prove citizenship in a country for more than two years [the period the world governing body requires for eligibility], but in Hong Kong this could easily be proved with a permanent HKID," Townson said.
"However, this is not a passport and therefore not recognised. The HKFA have been supportive to the point they have provided us with a letter of support, stating that our daughter has been selected for the national representative team, but we still need to comply with Immigration Department requirements and this means going through the process of applying to be a Chinese citizen.
"As dual nationality is not possible, renouncing the British will then be required for the final documentation to be issued. Kaela remains able to train with the representative team and attend training camps, but we fear this may be withdrawn too if we cannot get the HK passport."
The HKFA is sympathetic but says its hands are tied. There have been cases of adults giving up their British nationality to play for Hong Kong - James McKee and Jack Sealy, two players in the national squad being examples. But in Kaela's case, she cannot revoke her British nationality as she is still a minor.
"We are aware of her case. In fact, I have met with the family to discuss it," said Mark Sutcliffe, HKFA chief executive. "As far as we can tell, the only way to resolve the issue is for Fifa to make a special resolution in relation to Hong Kong. But this is not likely to be very high up their agenda.
"We are hosting the international tournament [this month] so our girls can gain experience of playing at a higher level. Because it is an international tournament we, as a member of Fifa, have to comply with their rules and regulations. Fifa insists on a passport as the official document required for player registration, the same system as adopted by the IOC.
"It's because player eligibility and registration has been abused in the past and they reckon a passport is the best form of identification - or should I say, the least likely form to be abused. People in other countries can gain 'dual nationality' if they meet the criteria and thus have two passports. This is not the case in Hong Kong and Macau because of their status as SARs."
Nir Horowitz, 14, is in the same boat as Kaela. A goalkeeper with the Kitchee Under-15 squad, the Hong Kong-born Nir finds himself on the wrong side of the net as his parents hold Israeli passports.
"My son was born in Hong Kong in 1999. He plays as first-choice goalie for Kitchee U15s. But I understand he will not be considered for the Hong Kong national team since he doesn't have a Hong Kong passport as required by Fifa as the sole evidence of residency.
"Nir holds an Israeli passport which he needs to give up if he wants to get a Hong Kong passport. We will not consider giving up his Israeli passport and see no reason why the HKFA, together with the Immigration Department, could not find a creative solution for such kids so they can be considered for the Hong Kong national team," said Nir's dad, Ilan Horowitz.
There are many other youngsters in the same situation as Kaela and Nir, but their parents refused to go on record.
"I guess it is not so much as coming out in the open, but highlighting a situation where despite being born here and living here all their lives, many boys and girls cannot represent the city," Townson said.
"Girls football is being promoted very positively by the HKFA at this time, so it is just a shame that some of the best selected players may not get the chance to represent Hong Kong if they cannot get the passport."