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Hong Kong champions Kitchee will need to go through a play-off round next season if they are to defend their title. Photo: Chan Kin-wa

Hong Kong Premier League to add play-off round for 2020-21 season to ensure clubs fulfil AFC match regulations

  • With R&F pulling out of Hong Kong football, the eight teams will play a double round-robin format with the top four advancing to a championship play-off
  • AFC rules require each team to play at least 27 matches during the season to qualify for a club licence

The new Hong Kong Premier League season will feature an additional play-off round after competing clubs agreed to increase the number of matches in the wake of R&F’s sudden withdrawal from domestic competition.

At a Premier League club meeting on Friday, it was decided the eight teams, including newly promoted Capital Resources, would continue with the regular double round-robin system. The top four teams would then advance to a championship play-off while the bottom four feature in a relegation play-off.

“The basic principle is to increase the number of matches to satisfy the regional governing body’s club licensing rules,” Hong Kong Football Association chairman Pui Kwan-kay said after the meeting. “We did discuss a number of options before reaching a decision to fulfil the requirements.”

According to Asian Football Confederation regulations, club licences are only handed out for teams who play a minimum of 27 matches in one season.

Hong Kong Football Association (HKFA) president Pui Kwan-kay hopes the new season can start in November. Photo: Chan Kin-wa

Under the proposed new format, there would be 14 matches for each club during the double round-robin stage and three more matches for the single round play-offs.

The FA Cup will also undergo a format change with the competition using a group system for the first stage, with four teams in a group and a minimum of three matches for each team. A minimum of six matches will be played for each team in the Sapling Cup and at least one match for each team in the Senior Shield, which will retain its straight knockout format.

Eastern Long Lions celebrate their Senior Shield triumph at Mong Kok Stadium on October 2, 2020. Photo: HKFA

To maintain interest in the relegation play-offs, HKFA vice-chairman Matthew Wong Leung-pak will donate prize money of HK$200,000 for the group winners.

Pui said they still had to sort out the finer details of the revamped format such as whether points accumulated in the first stage would be carried forward into the play-offs.

“There were some other options being discussed such as a full three-round-robin system, which would guarantee 21 league matches for each team but the season may then drag on for too long and suffer from a lack of interest in the final stages because only one or two teams would possibly still be in contention at that stage,” he said.

Kitchee’s Cheng Chin-lung (right) and Rangers’ Cesar Leguizamon Arce vie for the ball during a Sapling Cup clash in February. Photo: Chan Kin-wa

With only a limited number of games for the play-offs, all matches could take place at the Hong Kong Stadium in So Kon Po. For the league phase, none of the eight teams were willing to use the main stadium as a home ground because of the high hiring costs.

Pui is hoping the Premier League can kick off in November once the HKFA has ironed out all the details.

“We are still negotiating with the government to allow fans to get back to the stadium and hopefully this can be done when the Premier League matches begin,” he said. “But the 15 Sapling Cup matches are likely to stay behind closed doors. The pandemic remains the biggest problem, not only for football but also other sports.”

The new season, meanwhile, will kick off with the Sapling Cup group stage on Saturday with Capital Resources taking on Kwoon Chung Southern at Mong Kok Stadium, followed by Eastern Long Lions meeting Happy Valley at Siu Sai Wan Sports Ground. All Sapling Cup matches will be broadcast live online.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: City’s top-flight clubs agree to play-off round