Money talks: Hong Kong Premier League champions Eastern give up historic AFC Champions League place after losing financial backing
The decision, after former president Lai Tung-kwong withdrew over HK$20 million of support per year, means Kitchee will feature in Asia’s leading club competition in 2017
Premier League champions Eastern shocked the local football community on Monday after giving up the chance to become the first side from Hong Kong to participate in the AFC Champions League group stage next year after losing their key financier’s support.
Club manager Peter Leung Shou-chi confirmed former president Lai Tung-kwong decided to depart this month and stop sponsoring the side due to a disagreement regarding the club’s direction.
Lai invested over HK$20 million into the club annually for the past three years and Leung admitted the businessman had to cut costs.
“We had to give up our Champions League slot,” said Leung, who repeatedly refused to explain the details of the disagreement with Lai.
“Our new signing, Spaniard Mikel Arruabarrena, has already arrived in Hong Kong and we had to rescind the contract.
“These two things are the foremost for us to take care of because he is an expensive player. We also anticipated huge expenses for participating in the Champions League.”
Eastern enjoyed notable success last season by winning the league as well as the Senior Shield, with their achievements helping coach Chan Yuen-ting earn a Guinness World Record for being the first female football coach to win a top flight men’s championship in May.
Chan was also recognised by the Hong Kong Government and was awarded a Bronze Bauhinia Medal this month.
Leung said all accrued wages had been paid and the club would retain all current players, although they may have their salaries cut while Eastern are looking for new sponsors.
“If players joined us because they wanted to play in the Champions League, they are free to search for another club if they want to go,” he said, with the club deciding to postpone the first day of training from Monday to Saturday.
Leung said Eastern’s basketball team, which was also financially supported by Lai, will carry on as a professional side in the A1 division.
“I was shocked and upset when I got the news, but time helped me get through. I want to face this issue with a positive and optimistic mindset,” said Eastern coach Chan.
“All the things I have achieved in my career were from Eastern. We have many things not confirmed yet, but if Peter needs me, I will stay. We have gone through ups and downs. I believe there will be sunshine after the rain and we can overcome together.
“I will let the players decide on their own. They may have their own concerns as some need to raise their own families. I won’t put pressure on them to follow my decision.”
Hong Kong Football Association (HKFA) chief executive Mark Sutcliffe said there would be no penalty for Eastern from the local governing body following their withdrawal from the AFC Champions League.
“I doubt there will be a penalty from the AFC because we haven’t made the application yet. The competition doesn’t start until January. I think we have a very good replacement in Kitchee,” said Sutcliffe.
“They have played in the competition [the play-offs] before and have a Champions League club license. Subject to the AFC, Kitchee will play in the Champions League next season.”
Southern, who finished second in the end of season play-offs, now have the option to take up Kitchee’s original place in the AFC Champions League play-offs.
This is another blow to the Premier League as fans were still opposing the move to allow Chinese Super League side Guangzhou R&F to join an expanded 11-team top flight next season, with some threatening to boycott all league matches next season.
“From the Premier League perspective, obviously [Eastern’s decision] is a bit disappointing, maybe they will not be as competitive as they were last season, but they will still be competitive in the league,” added Sutcliffe.
“But I think it’s nonsense [to say the professional league is over]. Eastern haven’t withdrawn, they are still playing.
“Wong Tai Sin were relegated so the only team is not playing next season is Dream Metro Gallery, because of financial issues. I think it’s not true to say the league is not developing.”
Sutcliffe confirmed discussions regarding Guangzhou’s participation are ongoing and the HKFA are awaiting a formal response following last week’s decision regarding foreign players, with meetings expected to take place either this week or next week.