Optimism runs high as rebirth of the cash-happy Caroliners heralds new-look HK league's big kick-off Bigger, richer and full of new faces, Hong Kong's domestic league prepares to kick off today with most of the buzz surrounding the reinvigoration of flagship club South China. The domestic game badly needs to bounce back from the lows it has sunk to in recent years when the first whistle blows on the Coolpoint Ventilation First Division this afternoon. The early signs are promising - including an influx of investment, a raft of new players from Portugal and Brazil and an expanded field of 10 teams. HKFA secretary general Martin Lam Chun-ying is so enthused by the makeover that he's assuring fans of a 'better, more attractive' brand of football he hopes will produce a turnaround from the plummeting attendances of recent years. Defending champions Happy Valley will take on FA Cup holders Xiangxue Sun Hei in the curtain-raiser at Hong Kong Stadium, but the lion's share of attention will focus on tomorrow's match between South China and Football Club. And that's not because Football Club are making a comeback to the top flight after turning down a promotion opportunity one year ago, heartening as that is. The real source of interest lies in seeing how the Caroliners, the SAR's best-supported club, begin their bid to reclaim lost glories - backed by a staggering budget of HK$10 million. Once the giants of the Hong Kong scene, South China were facing demotion to the Second Division when they finished second from bottom last season. It was only a special resolution from the Hong Kong Football Association that allowed them to stay up. But that scare prompted the club to re-think their role in domestic soccer. With the return of businessman Steven Lo Kit-shing as the team convenor, they are set to introduce a Latin flavour to proceedings with the employment of a Portuguese coach and a group of seven players from Portugal and Brazil. This is the first time since 2001 that the league has boasted as many as 10 teams, a marked improvement on last term's anaemic eight. South China's investment has inspired a chain reaction in other clubs. At least four other teams have bolstered their squads in order to match the Caroliners. Valley, Sun Hei, Kitchee and Rangers are all well placed to make things more competitive, while Citizen, Lanwa, HK08 and the two promoted sides - Club and Wofoo Tai Po - look like being second-rankers. The top five clubs have budgets in the HK$4 million to HK$10 million range. 'There is no doubt that we are going to have a better season,' said Lam. 'From the number of teams to the increased investment in their respective squads everything is better and I can assure you that local football will become more attractive in the new season.' Lam said the HKFA had also been encouraged by the resurgence of commitment shown by the clubs. 'We had a workshop for the new season last week which was attended by more than 200 people, including club officials, referees, game assessors and supervisors,' he said. 'It looks as if they are more concerned about the league.' Although South China are making a huge investment in the new season, they still have to prove themselves on the field. Until a ball is kicked in anger the teams to beat will remain league champions Valley, double winners Kitchee (who snagged the Senior Shield and League Cup last season) and FA Cup holders Sun Hei. Valley stopped Sun Hei from winning their third League title in a row when they claimed the 2005-06 title. However, they failed to impress in the knockout competitions and disappointed in the AFC Cup where they were eliminated at the group stage. Coach Wong Yiu-shun quit to join Football Club and assistant coach Brazilian Ricardo Rambo stepped up to take the helm. The champions have secured a new Brazilian forward, Victor Manique de Jesus, to replace departing Clodoaldo de Oliveira. Valley have also secured Poon Man-tik from Sun Hei but that is hardly enough to keep their average age low. After a marvellous clean sweep of all domestic titles in 2004-05, Sun Hei claimed only the FA Cup last season. Striker Julius Akosah, who had a disappointing season, was let go to Kitchee, while midfielder Poon and left back Leung Chi-wing also left. Forward Marcio Anacleto returns to the team after a season with Rangers. South China's big outlay has netted seven overseas players and two former China internationals - Li Haiqiang and Tang Jinkai from China First Division side Chengdu Wuniu. They also have acquired Hong Kong international Man Pei-tak from Rangers. With so many new faces in the squad, it remains to be seen how new coach Jorge Amaral can blend in the fresh faces with the established players. Kitchee scored a cup double last season and the knockout competitions could be their main hope for more silverware this term. The same goes for Rangers, who may lack the overall strength to challenge the top three sides over the distance but who can compete with all-comers on any given day. Newly promoted Tai Po and Football Club, as well as HK08, who collected only two points last season when they finished bottom, will probably be scrapping it out at the wrong end of the standings.