Hong Kong Football Association (HKFA)

Darkest day for Hong Kong football as ‘Shaolin Temple’ South China withdraw from Premier League

The best-supported club in the city say they will play in the First Division and focus on youth development

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 June, 2017, 6:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 June, 2017, 10:06pm

Hong Kong soccer suffered one its darkest days ever on Monday as heavyweights and traditional powerhouses South China announced that they are withdrawing from the Premier League.

The best-supported and most successful club in Hong Kong history said in a statement that they would compete in the First Division in the new season to focus on junior development, which they say has been lacking in local soccer over the years.

“It has always been the target of South China to develop potential players but so far we haven’t seen this happen to help the sport in Hong Kong,” the statement said. “Since last season, we have started a 10-year programme to nurture youth players and the decision [to play in the First Division] is also in line with this aim.

“Hopefully we can build up a strong foundation for future development so that we can one day come back to the Premier League stronger.”

South China have been a stalwart of Hong Kong’s elite division for decades, even when they haven’t been successful. Their decision to pull out of the Premier League is one of the biggest setbacks in Hong Kong football’s recent history.

South China, also known as the Caroliners – the road in So Kon Po on which they have their clubhouse – have won a record 41 top-flight championship over their 100 years in Hong Kong. They only played in the second tier competition during their early years of joining the league.

Hong Kong Football Association chairman Brian Leung Hung-tak said they accepted South China’s decision at its board meeting on Monday, saying there was little they could do.

“We have to respect their decision although we all know South China have the longest history in Hong Kong soccer and are the most popular club,” said Leung. “Their decision will certainly affect our competition but hopefully it can be minimised with other clubs such as Eastern and Kitchee getting stronger and stronger.

“Following South China’s withdrawal, we are planning to have 10 teams in the Premier League next season – one less than this season but if the teams can keep playing well, the fans will still come.”

Kitchee crowned Hong Kong Premier League champions after rout of Eastern

In the previous season, Metro Galley declined to stay in the Premier League and were allowed to play in the First Division.

South China finished fourth in the just-completed season and businessman and convenor Wallace Cheung Kwong-yung decided to quit the club after spending HK$50 million without any major silverware after three seasons.   

However, Cheung and the club still have to resolve some players’ contracts. Nine players are believed to be contracted for next season with a total salary close to HK$10 million.   

Former Hong Kong team coach Tsang Wai-chung said it was hard to imagine a Hong Kong top-flight division without South China.

“It’s just like Bayern Munich having withdrawn from the Bundesliga,” said Tsang, who had a brief stint as South China coach in 2008 but quit suddenly after their first game of the season against Citizen.

“The club has been known as the Shaolin Temple of Hong Kong soccer and is the biggest pillar of the league. It is hard to imagine their absence.”

Seasoned soccer administrator Peter Leung Shou-chi felt sorry after hearing the news, saying he was sadder than when his team Eastern surrendered the league title to Kitchee after losing 4-1 to their opponents.

“I don’t think there is anything to do with the budget as there are always zealous people who want to take charge of the club as the new convenor,” said Leung, who has worked with South China in the past. “Hopefully their management can change their decision and make a return to the top flight as soon as possible.”