The local football community is in shock: 2015/16 Hong Kong Premier League champion Eastern SC, which earned worldwide fame with Chan Yuen Ting being the first title-winning female head coach of a men’s team, just made a major announcement that lays out a dark future for the former powerhouse.
On July 18th, at 4 pm, Eastern executive director Leung Shou Chi confirmed the rumours in a press conference at the headquarters of the Hong Kong Football Association. It appears that Eastern owner LAI Tung Kwong (Salon) has left Hong Kong and stopped his support for the team since July 1st. Some sources even suggest that Lai has actually disappeared and been out of reach for several weeks. As a consequence, Eastern SC finds itself almost completely cash-strapped, which will mean a major blow for their ambitions to enter the Asian Champions League.
In fact, Eastern SC made the difficult decision to withdraw from any AFC competition and instead focus on the local league, where the club will try to consolidate with a much smaller budget. At the same time, new signing Mikel Arruabarrena from La Liga team SD Eibar has been released. The remaining players were informed that they might have to expect significant salary cuts, and they are allowed to dissolve their contracts if they wish to do so. Nevertheless, Leung promised that the club will try their best to attract new sponsors and investors in the following weeks.
Mark Sutcfliffe, CEO of the HKFA, suggested that with Eastern foregoing their potential ACL group ticket, Kitchee should automatically inherit the spot as runners-up. The next team in line for the second AFC spot for an ACL qualification would then most likely go to Southern District, who were the season play-off finalist. Otherwise South China might also claim the spot, finishing 3rd in the league. However, the final decision will probably not be made before October or November, when the AFC will announce the tournament format for the coming year.
Mistery remains about how things unfolded so quickly. According to different sources close to the club there have already been troubles for several weeks, with some players allegedly still waiting for their May and June salaries. Also, the whereabouts of former chairman Lai Tung Kwong seem to be unknown – and he most likely left the country. Although this does not indicate any wrongdoing, his name has appeared in the recent Panama Paper leaks. Lai was also the leading force behind the Dreams Foundation, which has run a football academy in cooperation with Real Madrid, and the Eastern Basketball Team.