VIENTIANE -- There were reasons for Laos soccer fans to be cheerful at the start of 2017 and most of those were because of Lanexang United. The country's leading club reached the final of the inaugural Mekong Championship, beating teams from Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia along the way, to narrowly lose to Thailand's Buriram United, one of Southeast Asia's biggest clubs.
The results signalled that Lanexang, based in the capital city of Vientiane, was becoming a force in the regional scene -- thanks largely to an investment of over $10 million, on and off the field, over the past two years.
The money had been spent by the club's chairman Phanthachith Inthilath, also CEO of Intra Corp., a consultancy company. It meant that the Elephants, as Lanexang are nicknamed, were expected to defend their 2016 Laos Premier League title, their first, with the 2017 season due to kick off on Feb. 24.
However, just a month away from the kick-off, Lanexang announced its formal withdrawal from the league. With eight of the 14 league teams having already announced they would not be participating, United felt there was no way forward for the league. "The potential six-team Premier League competition in Laos for 2017 has rendered the commercial viability of football in Laos as untenable," the Jan. 23 statement read. "Our sponsors have also withdrawn their support for the club based on the dire situation of the upcoming domestic league for 2017."
With that bleak assessment, Laos's soccer ambitions seemed to be heading back to square one. While Lanexang invested heavily in developing its talent, a number of other clubs in the league have been struggling to meet financial obligations. Lanexang's General Manager Kaz Patafta said the situation is "frustrating" for the ambitious club.
"We don't understand what is going on," he said. "The last information we had was that the league had issued an open invitation for anyone who wanted to join. There has been a request for new clubs but this kind of thing does not happen anywhere else. I hope there is a plan in place."
Laos stands at a crossroads in its soccer ambitions, according to Patafta. On the other side of the landlocked country's borders, Thailand has clearly become the leading power in Southeast Asian soccer, with Vietnam not far behind. Even Myanmar and Cambodia have progressed, as they demonstrated with strong performances at the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup, Southeast Asia's biennial championship.
"We see leagues that are able to attract sponsorship and broadcasting partners," said Patafta, a former Australian youth international player whose mother is from Laos. "We see no reason why we can't do the same. Unfortunately, here, we don't get any help from the government, we have done it all by ourselves."
While other teams have spent money, the investment has lacked long-term vision, said Patafta. "It is season-by-season. We see a lot of teams entering the league with ambition and hope but they are unable to continue and we see a lot of turnover of clubs," he noted.
Steve Darby was the technical director of the Laos Football Federation from 2015 to 2016 and took control of the national team, currently ranked at 167th in the world by governing body FIFA, during qualification for the 2018 World Cup. "The national team is only as good as the league and especially so if no players are playing abroad," he said. "If players only get about four tough games a year they can never compete internationally."
Darby said he was surprised by Lanexang's withdrawal. "The club is by far the best in Laos with superb facilities and good staff. I hope the chairman's investment is not wasted."
The Lao Football Federation (LFF) declined to comment when contacted by the Nikkei Asian Review. According to Darby, the body is a microcosm of wider problems in the country. "There are a number of good young talented people in the federation, but they are often hamstrung by nepotism and a cadre of old-school people who don't want change as it threatens them."
While countries such as Thailand and Vietnam have progressed in recent years, the whole of Southeast Asia is still perceived as a hotbed of corruption in world soccer.
Laos is no exception. In November 2015, LFF president Viphet Sihachakr was banned by FIFA for two years after he allegedly accepted a cash payment from another football official. Viphet denied any wrongdoing but a year later, Laos was back in the headlines again.
In November 2016, four Laos national team players -- Saynakhonevieng Phommapanya, Chintana Souksavath, Moukda Souksavath and Phatthana Syvilay -- were suspended by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) during the AFC Solidarity Cup, amid allegations that they were working to fix the result of a game against Sri Lanka. The AFC said in a statement that it had made its decision because "their ongoing participation provided a direct threat to the integrity of the competition."
Those four players were among 22 from Laos and Cambodia banned for life by the AFC on Feb. 15. While details of the offences were not provided, the AFC said that 15 of the banned players were current or former players from the Laos national team, or club Lao Toyota.
Darby has coached in Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore and has come across match-fixing on various occasions. "The Laos national team suspensions were very saddening. I had two of them in my first 11 and they never let me down in training or games." He also believes that the practice is rife in the Laos Premier League. "Sadly there was a massive perception that games at league level were being fixed and as always, sadly, it is hard to prove. But in a poor country where players are paid poorly some of them drove wonderful cars and all had top smartphones."
The withdrawal of Lanexang does not help, according to Darby. "The club paid players on time, which is vital, and has a strong stance on corruption."
"From a club perspective, we have had no issues," said Patafta. "We lost just one game last season. There is no evidence to suggest that our club has been involved, but it is something that is unfortunate to see, but this does not occur only in Laos."
While corruption and financial issues may be weighing heavily on the country's soccer ambitions, there is still hope for the future, say insiders. "Laos could win the Suzuki Cup when you look at the type of youth talent they have here," said Patafta. "It can't happen in the next couple of years, it needs a lot of change, investment and planning, but it can happen."