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

In the job I do I expect scrutiny and occasional criticism, it goes with the territory. I understand that in trying to improve and develop football in Hong Kong, I will ruffle a few feathers along the way. However when that criticism is unjust, personally defamatory and questions my integrity, I am entitled to defend myself.

Last Friday (timed perfectly so I was out of the country) Kitchee held a press conference and I was personally blamed for an ‘administrative blunder’ the result of which means that Kitchee will not be playing in the AFC Champions League Group stages. I have received further criticism from Southern (the second club affected) for a lack of communication.

I have to set the record straight on these issues.

Southern threaten to sue the HKFA over the club’s eligibility in the AFC Champions League

I am in a difficult situation here. I do not normally discuss what happens in Board meetings because I do not think it is the right thing to do. However, Kitchee has already made it public knowledge that I disagreed with the original board decision to nominate Kitchee and Southern for places in AFC Club competitions for 2017. I think it was indiscreet of Kitchee to mention in public what happened behind closed doors and I can only assume that the only reason the club is highlighting this is because they think I somehow failed to implement the board’s resolution because I didn’t agree with the decision. I have been further accused of impartiality because they think I favoured Eastern over Kitchee. These accusations are untrue and serious. I have asked the club to retract them but I won’t hold my breath waiting for a response.

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It is true that at the Board meeting in August I advised the Board to nominate Eastern and Kitchee in that order in accordance with the AFC criteria. I could see no justification to reject Eastern because they had won the League, had submitted an AFC Champions League Licence application and had written to the HKFA asking to withdraw their previous letter which stated they had financial problems. My advice was rejected. You can argue that it was taken in good faith because at that time we did not know definitively how many places we would have in the AFC CL or whether club licence applications would be successful. It was theoretically possible (but unlikely) that Kitchee would be eligible for the AFC CL (if Eastern did not get an AFC club licence) and Southern eligible to be entered into the AFC Cup (if we only got one place in the AFC CL). However, I believed it was the wrong decision then and I still do. It is one reason why we are in this mess right now.

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.

There seems to be an assumption that whichever teams Hong Kong nominate will automatically be entered into the competition. I am being blamed for the fact that now it appears that Kitchee can’t play in the group stages. What is being conveniently forgotten is that it is not our competition and therefore not our decision. All we can do is nominate teams.

The ultimate decision does not even rest with the AFC. To avoid any accusations of bias or misconduct, the AFC has established an independent competitions committee to make decisions in relation to the AFC Club Competitions. At the time of writing this committee has not met. It meets on 24th November.

Based on our ranking now, the HKFA are likely to get two places in the CL. The criteria that the independent committee will apply in deciding which teams from each Member Association will be eligible have not changed. As far as the AFC CL is concerned it has always been the League Champions (Eastern) that should get the number 1 place. That is why it is called the Champions League. The number 2 position goes to the winner of the ‘domestic’ cup competition.

Eligibility to play in the CL is however first and foremost based on whether or not the club has an AFC CL club licence. Eastern had decided in April to apply for this level licence and had submitted all of the documentation required by the AFC deadline of 30th June. It is important to note that this was BEFORE the board meeting to decide which team to nominate.

Kitchee’s argument not true

Kitchee’s argument that the HKFA (and me in particular) in some way favoured Eastern in relation to the attainment of a club licence is simply not true. It is not the HKFA that grants the licence. There is an independent First Instance Body that assesses applications and ultimately it is the AFC that decides. Again the clue is in the title, it is an AFC CL Club Licence, not a HKFA Club Licence.

It is understandable that Kitchee is upset that Eastern have an AFC Club Licence because that means that Kitchee are not eligible for the number 1 position. This obviously puts the club in a difficult situation with players, coaches, fans, sponsors etc because there has been an expectation following the Board’s decision that they will be playing in the group stages. The truth is that this was only ever an assumption.

The contention that I am in some way responsible for Eastern obtaining a licence is simply not a sustainable position. It is my job to encourage clubs and to help them to apply for the higher level AFC Licence because it is a good tool for self-improvement and demonstrates to the football authorities that Hong Kong football is professional. I am not paid to block application and in any case as I have pointed out, the application was submitted before the decision as to which clubs to nominate. It is worth pointing out that the Secretariat helped four clubs gain the AFC CL Club Licence, Eastern, Kitchee, South China and Southern. In the case of Southern, the Secretariat worked with the club on an ‘extraordinary’ application after the Board’s decision because they had missed the deadline to apply. This is hardly indicative of an administration working against a Board resolution. At the end of the day the clubs decide whether to apply, not the HKFA. Again, I reiterate the HKFA does not award the licences either.

Another point being overlooked is that if it wasn’t for the hard work of the HKFA Secretariat lead 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. 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.

Another thing that was missing from Kitchee’s condemnation of me was any reason why I would favour one team over another. It simply doesn’t make sense. I want all of the teams in Hong Kong to be as successful as possible. I hold Kitchee in high regard and have been consistent in saying so. In many respects they are an example to the other clubs in Hong Kong.

Main criticisms

One the main criticisms of me was that in October I was made aware that the AFC independent committee when it meets on 24th November may annul the number 1 position for HK clubs if Eastern is not nominated and they obtain a club licence. It is true that this information was brought to my attention but only indirectly and unofficially. I requested that this information 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. Because I was aware that there was a ‘potential’ issue I asked our General Secretary to put an ‘Emergency Item’ on our Board Agenda for 5th December. I thought we would have time to address the issue after the committee decision but before the AFC CL/Cup Draw which is due to be held on 13th December.

As soon as I realised the urgency of the situation I phoned the AFC General Secretary who confirmed the likely outcome i.e. the committee would decide that HK should lose its number one place. Faced with this information I informed the Chairman and had a long conversation with Ken Ng from Kitchee. I tried all that day (Monday 14th) to get the Board to change the resolution but failed to get a sufficient number before the deadline. Therefore the Secretariat had no option but to apply on behalf of Kitchee and Southern in accordance with the original Board resolution.

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. It’s not the HKFA’s decision as to how many teams will play or which teams will be selected. In any case this decision has not been made yet. At the point in time when the press conference was held, the HKFA had applied on behalf of Kitchee and Southern.

Shooting ourselves in the foot

Coincidentally I was due to meet with officials from the AFC in Korea on Saturday 19th. Obviously I did not want to end up with a situation where Hong Kong only had one team playing in the AFC CL so I asked if we could resubmit the application. I also discovered that the method for calculating the Member Association ranking will change from next season and that only having one team playing in 2017 could affect the Hong Kong ranking in future years thus putting in jeopardy the chance of retaining our coveted place in the Group stage. It then became even more important that the Board changed its mind. At that point I tried to call Ken Ng to explain the implications for Kitchee. He didn’t take or return my call. I sent him messages which I know he received. From that point in time he changed his stance and started to support a new resolution to re-apply on behalf of Eastern and Kitchee.

I explained all of this to the Board when I returned to Hong Kong and a new resolution was agreed at a Board meeting on Monday afternoon to apply on behalf of Eastern and Kitchee. We will all have to wait and see what the committee decides tomorrow but I am confident that Hong Kong will have two places in the AFC CL, Eastern in the group stages and Kitchee in the preliminary knock out.

If this is the outcome then I am sorry that this will affect Kitchee’s plans for the CNY. I am happy to work with the club to find amicable solutions. I do not bear a grudge and remain supportive of the club.

I also understand that it is disappointing for Southern. I have been criticised for a lack of communication with Southern. I received an email from the club when I switched on my phone in Korea to which I immediately replied. I also wrote to the club after the new Board decision before we issued a press release. I can’t say any more than that other than I continue to communicate with the club and think that they now have a very clear picture of what has transpired.

I hope this detailed explanation helps people to understand how this unfortunate situation has evolved. I think there are lessons to be learnt on all sides. The important decisions are yet to be made by the AFC independent competition committee. I hope that the result of this is that Hong Kong has two teams in the AFC CL and that they will be placed in the right order to maintain the sporting integrity of the competition.

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.

Mark Sutcliffe is the chief executive of the Hong Kong Football Association