Hong Kong soccer faces its stiffest challenge yet as it tries to pick up the pieces after suffering tremen dous declines in attendances and gate receipts last season. The league opener between champions Happy Valley and South China this afternoon at Hong Kong Stadium will be an indicator as to whether the crowds will return. The Hong Kong Football Association (HKFA) suffered its worst-ever season with a massive 37.15 per cent drop in attendance from the season before. Gate receipts were also hit hard, with a staggering 43.75 per cent drop from the previous season. The HKFA knows another season like that could be the final nail in the coffin, but the local governing body is putting on a brave face and is quietly confident that things simply can't get any worse. 'We have to look at it long term,' said HKFA secretary Martin Lam. 'In previous seasons there was a feeling that we could come up with a quick fix to all these problems and bounce back, but it simply can't happen in one season. We have to look towards a long-term programme and we are now looking towards 2007,' he said. 'If the First Division teams play good, attractive football and if we spend more resources on the youth side, then we can make progress,' Lam added. The HKFA has already put in place a new board of directors with the hope that a more streamlined administration can come up with ideas to woo back the fans. 'We have a new structure which is, in a way, more pro-active. We will work together with the clubs more than ever before. Big games will be re-packaged and there will be new elements added on to the games like player profiles etc,' said Lam. 'Last season we kept on changing the fixtures, but this will be a thing of the past and we are going to keep to a schedule.' There are early indications that the fans might return. Last week's seven-a-side tournament saw about 10,000 spectators pass through the turnstiles, with about 3,500 watching the first day of play at Mongkok Stadium and another 6,500 at Hong Kong Stadium for the final. 'We have had a good start and it looks encouraging. The first six months of the new season will be a rebuilding phase,' said Lam. The HKFA has also scrapped the 'total football' system embraced almost a year ago, asking the Royal Dutch Football Academy to terminate its five-year contract after Hong Kong's disappointing performance in this year's World Cup qualifiers. Seven teams will take part in the 2001-2002 First Division - one less than last season - but the HKFA thinks this season will be more competitive. 'Happy Valley last season didn't have a great start and we hope they start off well. Some of the other teams look more determined to do well and they have been strengthened considerably,' said Lam. Happy Valley and South China begin their campaign today with both sides suffering from several key suspensions. Happy Valley must start the match without Indonesian forward Rochi Putiray, who is serving a three-match ban carried over from last season when he played for Instant-Dict. The champions will also have to do without new Singaporean signing Ahmad Latiff Kharmarudin, who is still awaiting his international transfer certificate. With their options exhausted, Happy Valley will have to field the relatively inexperienced Kwok Yue-hung and Kwok Man-tik up front. 'We were hoping to have Latiff play, but he is still waiting for his international transfer certificate from his previous club in Indonesia,' said Happy Valley manager Lim Fong Kee. South China also have their share of problems. They will be without Brazilian coach Casemiro Mior, who is serving a three-match touchline ban incurred last season. There are also doubts that Brazilian forward Aderbal Filho and former Hong Kong Footballer of the Year Ricky Cheng Siu-chung will be fit - both are suffering from hamstring problems. But the Caroliners welcome back winger Lee Kin-wo, who plays his first full game since serving a one-year ban for his part in a well-documented attack on a referee 17 months ago at the Hong Kong-Macau Interport. PROBABLE LINEUPS Happy Valley: 1-Fan Chun-yip; 3-Gerard Ambassa Guy, 4-Chau Chiu-hung, 5-Wong Wai-tak, 6-Lai Kai-cheuk; 18-Lee Wai-man, 8-Cheung Sai-ho, 11-Chan Chi-hong, 16-Lo Kai-wah; 10-Kwok Yue-hung, 7-Kwok Man-tik. South China: 1-Chung Ho-yin; 2-Yau Kin-wai, 3-Cristiano Cordeiro, 20-Szeto Man-chun, 4-Lam Hiu-fung; 11-Lee Kin-wo, 14-Poon Man-tik, 16-Shum Kwok-pui, 8-Yeung Ching-kwong; 7-Au Wai-lun, 25-Aderbal Filho.