BEC Tero back in Thai Premier League but more uncertainty for other clubs
Six weeks behind schedule, the Thai Premier League (TPL) has finally released fixtures for the 2016 season but the identify of participants remains uncertain, though BEC Tero Sasana -- newly stripped of its star players -- have received a second reprieve in the space of a month.
The standout fixture of the first match day is the clash between champions Buriram United and Chonburi FC on Feb. 26, but the meeting of Muang Thong United and BEC Tero on the same weekend holds a different kind of intrigue.
In a close season of incredible farce, the Thai football authorities were unable to resolve a number of issues dating back several months and have reversed their sudden decision to expand the TPL from 18 to 20 teams.
Now, it is expected that a weakened Tero will take their place in an 18-team league format despite ending last year in the relegation places.
They may or may not be joined by Police United and Pattaya United -- recently arrived in the top flight -- while the identity of other promoted clubs is still impossible to clarify.
The uncertainty appears to have been created by a perfect storm of weak governance, influential figures and financial mismanagement.
Victims of the uncertainty include certain clubs and coaches who can't persuade players to join them because they don't know which league they will play in. The fans who wish to plan away trips and block their diaries when their team is playing at home now have limited time to do so.
It has been a highly unsatisfactory series of events which will hopefully result in a comprehensive review of how the league is run and how such problems can be avoided in the years to come.
At the end of the 2015 season, it all looked a little clearer. BEC Tero, along with Port FC and TOT SC had finished in the bottom three spots and would be relegated from the TPL. Tero had earlier appealed a loss against Bangkok United due to an alleged breach of the rules relating to the foreign player quota, but the appeal was rejected.
In Division One, it was a little more complicated. Police United won the league at a canter and Pattaya United had also won promotion with a second-placed finish. The third, fourth and fifth-placed teams were separated by one point -- BBCU FC edged Sukhothai and Nakhon Pathom FC -- but the latter two had an unfinished fixture to complete. Sukhothai's floodlight failure back in May 2015 had created a problem that has yet to be addressed.
At the beginning of January, the TPL announced that the league would be expanded to 20 teams, in order to resolve the uncertainty created by the ongoing threat of a legal dispute with Tero, who had taken their appeal against relegation to the civil court.
Several teams objected, including Buriram and Chonburi, resulting in a period of 'reflection' as other issues came to the fore. Police United were having financial problems, the other promoted side Pattaya United were changing owners and TPL club Saraburi FC had issues with money due to a lack of sponsorship.
Just last week, BEC Tero announced that it had been sold to new owners -- identities unknown. Soon, their star players Chanathip Songkrasin, Tanaboon Kesarat and Peerapat Notechaiya signed loan deals at Muang Thong, while there were rumours about the possible transfers of Tero's other assets.
This week, the TPL announced that there would be an 18-team league and that BEC Tero and Port FC would be relegated and they had reportedly accepted their fate for "the good of Thai football".
And finally, on Feb. 4, Saraburi's problems were explained as being so severe that they could not take their place in the TPL this season, meaning last year's third bottom team BEC Tero would stay in the TPL after all.
The fates of Police United and Pattaya United remain unclear so the picture may change in the days to come. Both must provide evidence of their ability to pay players and remain solvent before being granted a TPL licence. With the recent reports that Police United owed 50 Million Baht in unpaid wages to players, a great deal of uncertainty remains.
It must be hoped that the rising regional profile of the TPL is not jeopardised by the inability of the governing body to apply its own rules and revise them when necessary.
The recent FIFA bans on Indonesia and Kuwait for political interference should serve as a warning. Thailand's recent progress in football must not be taken for granted. With an election for the new president of the Football Association of Thailand taking place next week, the message must be that change is necessary and not optional. Thai football fans deserve better.
Paul Murphy has lived in Thailand for nine years, contributing to ESPN FC since 2014. He is a former Daily Express (UK) sub-editor. @PaulMurphyBKK