Laos champions pull out of AFC Cup as Home United prepare for playoff
Laos champions Lanexang United have withdrawn from the 2017 AFC Cup group expected to feature Singapore's Home United.
They've also pulled out of the 2017 Laos Premier League, as football in the country goes into apparent meltdown.
Eight teams had already withdrawn from the domestic competition, and a statement on the Lanexang Facebook page states that this situation "renders the commercial viability of football in Laos as untenable".
The collapse of the domestic league has seen the club's sponsors remove their support. It's a further blow for an ambitious team, who had seemed to be going places after running away with the title last year, with 24 wins from 26 games.
Lanexang United were drawn in Group H for the 2017 AFC Cup last month, with Home United needing to win a Jan. 30 playoff to join Myanmar's Yadanarbon and Vietnam's Than Quảng Ninh.
Lanexang's general manager Kaz Patafta, who attended last month's AFC Cup draw, expressed frustration with the situation, with concerns for the future of the club, and Laotian football, in general.
"The club was left with no other alternative, but to withdraw from the domestic league, due to the confirmation of only four teams for 2017," Patafta told ESPN FC. "The inability to field a professional domestic league has a contagion effect that we have tried to mitigate for the past few weeks.
"Without a domestic league, there is limited commercial viability for our partners, and their withdrawal of support makes it extremely difficult to field a team in the AFC Cup.
"At this time, we have received no comment or support from the Laos Football Federation so I am not in a position to suggest whether it is permanent. Until the governing body for football in Laos is able to provide a sustainable, professional and safe league, inclusive of AFC club licensing regulations, the club and football as a whole will stagnate."
Just three weeks ago, guided by Brazilian head coach Leonardo Vitorino, Lanexang pulled off a huge upset by defeating Buriram United -- Thai Premier League champions from 2013-2015 -- in the first leg of the Mekong Club Championship final.
This 1-0 victory came in front of 10,000 fans in Vientiane and appeared to be a moment of huge significance in the development of football in the country. It was also a welcome positive story at a time when four players in the national team have been suspended pending an investigation into allegations of match-fixing.
Buriram turned things around and won the second leg 2-0, but Lanexang had served notice of their ability to compete with a team that has regularly played in the AFC Champions League over the past five years. Rather than serving as a launchpad for better things, however, the future of the club is now uncertain as it faces the challenge of a year without competition.
"We have shown as a club what we were able to achieve in a short period of time and the hope would be that we can continue on the same path," said Patafta. "However, without a competitive youth and senior league in Laos, the prospects for professional football will be bleak.
"We hope that the governing body has a solution to support all clubs, not only Lanexang United."
In addition to issues around participation in competitions, Lanexang are facing a legal battle over match fixing allegations, which the club refute. The club's Facebook statement added: "We...await formal and legal proceedings in relation to match manipulation before our club is prepared to enter future FIFA, or AFC-sanctioned, tournaments."
If a solution cannot be found, the Asian bosses will have to revise the draw for the 2017 AFC Cup, as clubs prepare for the playoff round, which begins next week.
Bangkok-based Paul Murphy has lived in Asia for a decade, writing for ESPN FC since 2014. He is a former Daily Express sub-editor. @PaulMurphyBKK