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A Hong Kong football fan tries to watch the behind closed door Hong Kong Premier League match between Happy Valley and Kitchee at Mong Kok Stadium in October, 2020. Photo: Sam Tsang

Covid-19 chaos for Asian football as region’s leagues hit hard by pandemic

  • Indonesia’s Liga 1 season finally called off 10 months after last game while Taiwan’s top flight played full season
  • Chinese Super League opted for bubble as pandemic forced format changes across East and southeast Asian leagues

A year ago, Hong Kong footballers were still training despite the unknowns that lay ahead, but right now football in any form is forbidden.

That is the only thing we do know.

The local scene is in a sorrier state than usual after more than 18 months of disruptions, first by citywide anti-government protests and then the global pandemic.

Hong Kong Premier League 2019-20 champions Kitchee line up ahead of their meeting with Southern at Hong Kong Stadium. Photo: HKFA
It is hoped that there will be a return of the second stop-start season of the Hong Kong Premier League after the Lunar New Year in February but there is no restart date in sight, nor a plan for how a restart might look, be that behind closed doors, in a bubble or whatever.
Meanwhile, the representative team has not played for 13 months and Hong Kong head coach Mixu Paatelainen’s contract expires soon, with the Hong Kong FA yet to confirm the Finn’s future in the role.

Covid-19 has cost Hong Kong football a year it could ill afford to lose

There are further examples of how the Hong Kong Football Association and its reliance on government funding has found itself in increasing jeopardy during the past 18 months or so that to list them all out begins to look morbid.
Still, in short, last season stopped several times, sometimes for months, and was also forced behind closed doors. It finally finished in October, more than 12 months after it started, having lost three teams along the way – champions Tai Po, Yuen Long and Rangers – because of the financial strain.
The current season, which features only eight teams in the HKPL after Tai Po and Yuen Long chose to drop down a division and big-spending R&F folded, saw a change in format but it is again on pause.

It is a nightmarish scene and one that Lee Man coach Chan Hiu-ming posted about on social media last week, citing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in the process.

Chan asked to train while they wait to see what comes next.

“We no longer care if we have to brief on the pitches, if we let fans in, if we can have professional facilities, such things other professional football clubs should have.

Hong Kong football without CEO after six candidates fail test

“This time right now, you could say, is the worst time for Hong Kong professional football since the end of the Second World War.”

Hong Kong football has been dramatically affected by Covid-19 and it is clear that this will have a lasting affect on everything from the men’s representative team, ranked 143 in the world, to the next generation of grass roots players and coaches who have also been put on pause.

How different is that from football across East and Southeast Asia and is Hong Kong football at a disadvantage to its regional rivals?

Japan – Fifa ranking 27

The J.League returned in June following its initial Covid-19 stoppage after the first round in February – the first major Japanese sport to shut down. They completed the season, to the relief of JFA president Kozo Tashima, though initially without fans. Several games were postponed, including the Levain Cup in November. That was played in front of nearly 25,000 in Tokyo earlier this month.

Despite rising cases in Japan and the capital in a state of emergency, the new J.League season is set to begin soon, with the government pointing to that as a reason to be hopeful of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games going ahead in July.

Cheering mannequins in the stands for the 2020 K League game between FC Seoul and Gwangju FC behind closed doors at Seoul World Cup Stadium. Photo: DPA

South Korea – Fifa ranking 38

The K League took on global interest when it returned in May, one of the first football leagues back from shutting down when it delayed the season kick-off in February. In October, stadiums were reopened to fans at 25 per cent capacity.

A shortened 27-game season – 22 regular season games and five final rounds – was completed in November and the 2021 season is set to start in February with the number of games to be decided then.

K League side Ulsan Hyundai won the AFC Champions League in its Doha-based bubble in December.

Australia – Fifa ranking 41

The A-League is one of the few Asian leagues to operate its season over two calendar years. The 2019-20 season began back in October 2019 and was set to end the following April. Covid-19 pushed that back to mid-August.

Football was called off in March before resuming in mid-July and packing the games in before the Grand Final on August 30. The A-League sides certainly suffered for this in the AFC Champions League when it resumed in November, having not played for months.

The current season began on December 28, with the first games delayed by a Covid-19 outbreak in Sydney.

Staff members wear masks on the sidelines of opening match of the 2020 Chinese Super League season between Wuhan Zall and Qingdao Huanghai in Suzhou in July, 2020. Photo: Xinhua

China – Fifa ranking 75

The Chinese Super League was set to begin last February but the country shut down all sport and its start was delayed, with question marks over whether it would ever take place.

In the end it was played in a new format and a tight bubble – with players, staff and officials confined to the same hotels outside training and matches.

By the end of the season fans were allowed into stadiums, although the players, staff and match officials were all contained in their bubbles – though they were allowed time off between the league games and play-offs. There were no Covid-19 positives in the CSL.

A similar format is set to be used for next season, which will not begin before March according to reports. Hong Kong’s Tan Chun-lok and Dai Wai-tsun were the only two eligible players in the CSL last season.

Vietnam – Fifa ranking 93

The V.League was delayed from February to March and then played behind closed doors for two games before being called off.

Fans were back in full force when the league resumed in June, following a four-month pandemic pause, but a month later four of the 14 teams called for the league to be cancelled amid more cases in the country. It was instead postponed until late September, with the season finishing in November.

The new season began earlier this month.

Thailand – Fifa ranking 111

The Thai top flight, Thai League 1, began last February and played until mid-March before being called off. That lasted until September when games resumed, with the Thai FA stretching the 2020 season to a May 2021 finish.

All January games were called off after a surge in cases. December’s games were allowed to be played in half-full stadiums, but some teams chose to play behind closed doors before football stopped midway through the month.

Games have been tentatively greenlit to go ahead in February without fans.

Supporters cheer for the North Korean football team during the 2017 East Asian Football Federation (EAFF) E-1 Football championship in Tokyo. Photo: EPA

North Korea – Fifa ranking 115

It is unknown whether the league has been cancelled or postponed, with results of games usually published after the fact. On the international stage, the North Korea women’s team pulled out of Tokyo 2020 qualifiers set to take place early last year. The AFC gave no reason for the decision.

Similarly, there will be no North Korean clubs in this year’s AFC Champions League or AFC Cup, with teams omitted from the list of licensed clubs.

Philippines – Fifa ranking 124

The Philippines Football League played out its 2020 season in a bubble at the national training centre in October and November, with six teams including a national development team playing each other just once.

Originally set to begin in March, the start was further delayed for Typhoon Quinta and Covid-19 cases inside the bubble.

The 2021 season is aiming for an April start and for more than six teams to take part.

Myanmar – Fifa ranking 137

The national league was postponed from March to late August, with all games played in Yangon after football resumed.

April will see the start of the new Myanmar National League season. Officials said the first half of the league will take place in Yangon, with a move to home and away games later in the season dependent on the virus situation.

Taiwan – Fifa ranking 138

The Taiwan Football Premier League was one of only four leagues in world football that were running when it kicked off on April 12.

It stayed the course and completed the season without incident, with fans in attendance following the first round.

The league finished in November with Taiwan Steel crowned champions for the first time. Ming Chuan pulled out after being relegated to the second division.

Malaysia – Fifa ranking 153

The Malaysia Super League stopped from March to August, resuming without fans in grounds and in a shortened format of 11 games.

It was won in October, for the seventh season in a row, by JDT. The club were denied permission by the Malaysian government to travel to Qatar for the AFC Champions League.

The new season is expected to start on February 26, barring Covid-19 complications.

Singapore – Fifa ranking 158

The Singapore Premier League season was called off in March and defending Singapore Premier League champions DPMM FC, the Brunei side, withdrew before it resumed in October.

The new season is set to begin with the Community Shield in February, though Abirex Niigata, the league’s invited Japanese team, are set to struggle with their players travelling to Singapore.

Indonesia – Fifa ranking 173

The Indonesian Liga 1 season was finally called off this week by the PSSI, the Indonesian FA, 10 months after football halted.

Last season began in February before being postponed indefinitely in March. The proposed restart kept getting pushed back – with a February 2021 start offered up – before finally being called off completely.

It is unclear when football will resume again in Indonesia.

Macau – Fifa ranking 182

Macanese football had a lengthy gap between the 2019 and 2020 seasons, with the 2019 campaign ending that July and no football until last September.

With the Liga de Elite all played at the same stadium, there was little difference in the shortened format, which saw teams play each other once.

Benfica Macau topped the table from CPK on goal difference, thanks to a 23-1 win on the final day.