Football and money are inseparable, and money and muck are inseparable. So, while the specificity of how football and muck interact is often surprising, the simple fact that they do is never surprising. So while it is surprising that Leeds United will tour Myanmar at the end of the season, because who could predicted, it is also not surprising at all, because why wouldn’t they?
Two friendlies are scheduled, on 9 May in Yangon, against the national team, and on 11 May in Mandalay, against the Myanmar National League All-Stars. The Foreign Office suggests that anyone planning to visit those cities should “Check travel advice before travelling”, and warns that other areas of the country be avoided for “all but essential” journeys. Quite what Leeds’ players and staff have to say about these plans remains to be seen.
Governmental oppression of the Rohingya in the northern province of Rakhine was described by the United Nations as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, while Amnesty International called it “genocide”. Or, as Leeds’ managing director Angus Kinnear put it, “Myanmar is one of the fastest growing nations in South East Asia and is passionate about English football”.
Since August 2017, that passion for English football has seen villages destroyed, men killed, and women and children abused, with 700,000 refugees forced over the border into Bangladesh. Aung San Suu Kyi, incumbent state counsellor and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has denied all responsibility for the horror, but the world has judged otherwise. The Myanmar army is behind many of the atrocities.
As soon as the tour was announced, British Rohingya, a UK-based organisation made up of Rohingyas and their supporters, issued a statement via Twitter: “Plz note a football club from Leeds, UK has decided to play football in Myanmar,” it said. “This is absolutely disgraceful. Leeds United FC is going to play football on the grounds soaked in the blood of innocent Rohingya children, women & older ppl.” The club, of course, is certain that it knows better.
Leeds’ tour is to be sponsored by AYA, a private Myanmari bank not unconnected to the Rohingyan devastation. Its owner, the businessman Zaw Zaw, who administers the Myanmar National League and Burma Football Association, is close to Suu Kyi, and was described in a 2007 US diplomatic cable as actively seeking favour with senior generals of the previous military regime. He operates in an area of the world familiar to Leeds’ owner, Andrea Radrizzani, who owns sports media firms in south-east Asia and the investment company, Aser. The club’s official statement notes that the tour is “part of Aser’s ongoing commitment to partnerships in the region”. In other words, Leeds United, one of England’s most prestigious and historic football clubs, now exists to serve the private interests of some random rich bloke.
In a sense, this is barely news: after all, the next two World Cups are in Russia and Qatar, countries culpable for all sorts; the FA Cup is sponsored by Emirates, owned by the government of Dubai, another human rights blackspot; Manchester City are owned by Abu Dhabi’s royal family, which has an appalling human rights record, while the club’s manager, Pep Guardiola, once acted as an ambassador for Qatar; Manchester United’s owners give money to Donald Trump and the team recently took a break in Dubai; Liverpool are sponsored by Standard Chartered which, in 2014, was fined $300m for lapses in anti-money laundering procedures; and on and on. This is football, this is sport, this is mankind, this is the world.
For fans, the easiest response is apathy. Football is our heritage and our identity; it is there not for reality but release. Except to look away makes us complicit in the awfulness, and to be partisan about it makes us idiots. Our clubs are not constituted by their legal owners, so we are not obligated to forsake one because the other is appalling. But as human beings, we are absolutely obligated to acknowledge the price of our pleasure and to call it out wherever possible, retaining fresh outrage for each new abomination.
This mission has been hindered by those who ought to have helped. The media has largely ignored the worst of things to focus on the best of things, preferring soft soaps and relationships to investigations and truth. Football authorities have allowed the game to be hijacked by aggressive nationalist and capitalist agendas. Craven, indolent, avaricious and plain thick governments have failed to regulate unelected, unaccountable bodies. All are complicit in the hijack of our national game, and the accordant tarnishing of our personal and communal being.
If the FA and government have a shred of decency – yes, I know – they will deem this latest disgrace a disgrace too far. They must act now to prevent Leeds from visiting Myanmar, and then continue acting until there is no acting left to be done. But do not hold your breath.