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.
"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," said Hardev Jadeja, treasurer of AIFF.
"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?" he added.