‘Hong Kong football has shot itself in the foot’ – FA chief hits back at clubs as war of words over Champions League continues

Kitchee and Southern publically criticised chief executive Mark Sutcliffe in an unseemly saga

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 November, 2016, 3:44pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 November, 2016, 11:16pm

Hong Kong Football Association chief executive Mark Sutcliffe angrily hit back at Kitchee and Southern in an ongoing public war of words over which clubs should represent the city in the Asian Champions League.

“Hong Kong football has shot itself in the foot and reinforced negative public perceptions,” he wrote in a lengthy article about the back-and-forth argument that has seen clubs publicly criticise the HKFA and its chief and even threaten legal action.

Sutcliffe said he was being used as a “convenient scapegoat”, suggested Kitchee win the league this season if they want to be guaranteed a place in the Champions League and admitted the whole embarrassing situation was “a mess”.

He said he wouldn’t “hold [his] breath” waiting for Kitchee to retract their criticisms, which he described as “unjust, personally defamatory and [questioning] my integrity.”

As Hong Kong Premier League champions Eastern were entitled to a place in the group stage of the Champions League. Kitchee were to take part in the qualifying play-off.

But when Eastern lost a sponsor, they requested to withdraw. Kitchee and Southern were nominated for the group stage and playoff place, only for the Asian Football Confederation to point out that this was against the rules.

‘I have to set the record straight’ – read Hong Kong FA chief’s lengthy article hitting back at criticism by clubs

That prompted angry public denunciations of Sutcliffe and the HKFA from Kitchee and Southern, the former blaming him for “an administrative blunder” and the latter threatening to sue over a “lack of communication”.

At a board meeting on Monday, clubs agreed to go back to ‘plan A’, with Eastern heading to the group stage and Kitchee the playoffs. The AFC is set to confirm the competition setup on Thursday.

“[Kitchee’s] accusations are untrue and serious,” Sutcliffe wrote in a lengthy article in which he went through the saga in detail. “I have asked the club to retract them but I won’t hold my breath waiting for a response.”

Five days after Eastern pulled out of the competition, they asked to be reinstated, but were rejected by the HKFA board.

“My advice [to nominate Eastern and Kitchee] was rejected [at that August board meeting],” wrote Sutcliffe. “I believed it was the wrong decision then and I still do. It is one reason why we are in this mess right now.

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“Another reason of course which no-one seems to be mentioning is that Kitchee did not win the League. If they had, none of this would have happened. Perhaps they should use this as motivation to win the HKPL this season.”

Sutcliffe said clubs should be thanking the HKFA for the fact Hong Kong has a group stage place at all.

“If it wasn’t for the hard work of the HKFA secretariat led by me to introduce a club licence into Hong Kong football (and many of the clubs fought against it), Hong Kong would not have a place in the group stages of the AFC CL,” he wrote.

“The fact that we are now one of only six member associations in East Asia (the others being Australia, China, Japan, Korea Republic and Thailand) eligible for this status is testament to how far we have come. We should be being thanked not denigrated.”

Sutcliffe said one of the main criticisms levelled against him was that he knew in October that Hong Kong stood to lose its group stage place were Eastern not nominated.

“It is true that this information was brought to my attention but only indirectly and unofficially. I requested that this information to be put in writing so I could take some official action.

“I was told that this could not happen and to date no official confirmation has ever been received. I can’t act on second-hand information that wasn’t even sent to me from a person I don’t know.

“I did not deliberately withhold information from any of the clubs.

“I was not personally aware that the HK application needed to be submitted on Monday 14th until the evening of Sunday 13th. Up until then I assumed that we would need to apply after the AFC independent committee had met on the 24th to confirm how many teams would be eligible to play ...

“On Monday 14th I exchanged 34 WhatsApp messages with Ken Ng from Kitchee as well as a half hour telephone conversation explaining all of the above. Despite having this background information and rather than trying to sort things out collectively and in private, he chose to go ahead with the press conference using me as a convenient scapegoat.

“To be honest I am still mystified as to what ‘administrative blunder’ he is referring to ...

“The sad thing for me is that we should be celebrating the fact that we have achieved two teams playing in the region’s most prestigious club competition. Instead Hong Kong football has shot itself in the foot and reinforced negative public perceptions.”

Kitchee chief Ken Ng confirmed the club are currently planning further action and will not be making any further comment on the situation at this time.