New Delhi: The All India Football Federation (AIFF), its general-secretary to be precise, is desperate to keep the relegated Lajong in the I-League next season, and the reason trotted out to retain them is to promote the sport in the northeast. To resurrect the Shillong club it has decided to make the 14-team league 16-strong.
The move to keep Lajong in the premier league is seen as a ploy by AIFF general-secretary Alberto Colaco to oblige the club owners despite their last-place finish in the 2009-10 season.
It is intriguing that the AIFF is mulling increasing the league strength to 16 next season despite its president Praful Patel making it clear after the executive committee meeting earlier this month that the I-League will continue to have only 14 teams.
The league rules stipulate that the bottom two teams from the top division - Lajong and Sporting Clube de Goa - will have to be relegated and the top two teams from Second Division -- Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) get promoted. But the AIFF wants to retain all the 14 teams from last year and add the two promoted clubs to make it 16.
Of the 14, Mahindra United has been disbanded and the AIFF has decided to field its under-19 team in place of the Mumbai club.
Justifying the AIFF move, its treasurer Hardev Jadeja told IANS that Lajong`s presence has revived football in the northeast and the federation wants that the sport is spread in the northeast as the region is throwing up a lot of promising players.
`Thanks to Lajong, soccer has touched new heights in the northeast. From every I-League match at home, the club has earned Rs.1.5 million as gate money. This is a record, which even Kolkata clubs couldn`t achieve in the last five years. We want Lajong in the first division for the development of football in the northeast,` Jadeja said.
Isn`t it a violation of league rule of promotion and relegation? `In the past we have bent rules for the development of Indian football. So why not this time? I have been to several I-League matches in Shillong and was surprised with Lajong`s fan following,` Jadeja added.
However, some I-league committee members are unhappy with AIFF`s move. They feel that AIFF secretary, who is also the I-League chairman, is arbitrarily taking decisions without consulting them.
Mohun Bagan`s Debashish Dutta, a member of the I-League committee, blasted Colaco for trying to change the rules of the league.
`The rule says that two teams have to be relegated so why change it after the end of the tournament. These things should be sorted out before the end of the league, not after. What is the sanctity of the league committee when members are not consulted or their views are not solicited and all decisions are taken by the league chairman,` Dutta asked.
Meanhwile, Vasco, who finished third in the second division, have appealed to the AIFF that they should be promoted as third team from Second Division to replace Mahindra United.
Vasco president Vinod Parkhot said: `In 2007, AIFF had replaced disbanded Fransa Pax with HAL, which had finished third in the second division. So, here too the same rule should be applied and allow us to play in the I-League in place of Mahindra.`