Hong Kong is in danger of losing a coveted spot in next year’s AFC Champions League group stage after the Asian Football Confederation confirmed league runners-up Kitchee will not be allowed to replace Premier League champions Eastern in the 2017 competition.
Eastern revealed in July they would be giving up the chance to become Hong Kong’s first-ever direct qualifier for the continental club competition after losing key financial support having claimed the top-flight title last season.
The Hong Kong Football Association (HKFA) have since entered the names of Kitchee and also end of season play-off runners-up Southern, who would enter in the continental play-off stage, but that move is set to fall foul of Asian Football Confederation (AFC) competition rules.
“We can confirm that if Eastern decide not to participate in the competition the HKFA will lose the direct slot in the group stage,” an AFC spokesperson told the Post.
Clubs from the city have regularly featured in the second-tier AFC Cup with South China reaching this year’s quarter-finals, while Kitchee were eliminated in the AFC Champions League play-offs.
Hong Kong’s ranking within the AFC has now risen to 14, meaning they are now eligible for one direct group stage berth as well as a place in the play-offs as the sixth best rated nation in the East region.
Money talks: Hong Kong Premier League champions Eastern give up historic AFC Champions League place after losing financial backing
But according to AFC competition rules, the “sporting criteria” which determines eligible teams lists “winner of the national top division league” as the first factor to consider.
Should Hong Kong have their place withdrawn, it is believed seventh ranked Australia will benefit by seeing their automatic group stage places increase to three.
South Korea and Japan are currently allocated three automatic spots in the group stage of the 16-team East region plus one play-off berth.
HKFA chief executive Mark Sutcliffe is set to meet with AFC officials during a Champions League workshop in South Korea this weekend on the sidelines of the first leg of this year’s final between FC Seoul and Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates.
“The HKFA Board resolved to apply on behalf of Kitchee and Southern,” said Sutcliffe. “Obviously it would be disappointing.
“I am going to an AFC Champions League workshop in Korea this weekend to coincide with the first leg of the final, so maybe they will tell me then, but as of now I have had no confirmation so can’t really comment.”
Eastern manager Peter Leung Shou-chi confirmed in July that last season’s Premier League and Senior Shield winner “had to give up our Champions League slot” after president Lai Tung-kwong decided to depart having invested over HK$20 million into the club a year for the past three years.
At the time Sutcliffe said that “I doubt there will be a penalty from the AFC because we haven’t made the application yet. I think we have a very good replacement in Kitchee. Subject to the AFC, Kitchee will play in the Champions League next season.”