Leeds United’s players ticked off the first game of their much-criticised AYA Bank Tour of Myanmar with a 2-1 defeat to a Myanmar National League All-Stars team.
A second-half penalty from Nigerian forward Christopher Chizoba decided the friendly in Yangon as a young Leeds squad completed the initial stage of a two-match visit to the Far East.
Head coach Paul Heckingbottom named numerous academy players in the 22-man group taken to Myanmar on Monday and he followed up on his promise to use both friendlies to analyse the youngsters directly below the club’s senior squad.
The United boss remarked before flying from England that the tour was “not a football trip” and today’s game at Thuwanna Stadium, staged in humid conditions and less than 24 hours after Leeds landed in Yangon, played out at the pace of an early pre-season friendly. Chizoba’s 64th-minute effort settled it.
Leeds and owner Andrea Radrizzani faced down multiple objections to their tour of Myanmar, many related to alleged human rights abuses carried out by the ruling government and others concerning Zaw Zaw, the tycoon behind the event.
Zaw Zaw, one of Myanmar’s most powerful businessmen and an associate of Radrizzani’s, is chairman of AYA Bank and controls both the Myanmar National League, from which today’s All-Stars line-up was picked, and the country’s Football Association.
He has strong ties to the government and, as a result of links to the previous military regime, was blacklisted by the USA until 2016 after Washington imposed a ban on most trade with Myanmar. Zaw Zaw and Radrizzani took to the pitch together before kick-off, the former in a Leeds shirt and the latter in a Myanmar national strip.
MPs in the UK and Amnesty International questioned the ethics of Leeds helping to promote a country which has been accused by United Nations officials of engaging in ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in the east of the county. Human Rights Watch is currently called on the UN to refer the crisis to the International Criminal Court and Kyaw Win, an official with the Burma Human Rights Network, said the tour was “normalising individuals and entities implicated in war crimes.”
Radrizzani, who has commercial interests in the region through his investment firm Aser and TV rights network Eleven Sports, attempted to quell the criticism with an open letter which said Leeds stood to earn no fee from the trip and that the friendlies were “a personal initiative to support local football and a way to introduce the name of Leeds United in the fastest growing country in southeast Asia.”
“I believe the tour will have a positive impact on the local community in parts of the country we
intend to visit,” Radrizzani wrote. “This was a carefully considered decision and we knew it would be controversial but this is about people not governments.”
AYA Bank sponsored United’s visit, providing the branding on the shirts worn by Heckingbottom’s players as they toured the Shwedagon Pagoda, a temple in Yangon, earlier today. Around 50 Leeds supporters attended the meeting with the MNL All-Stars, many paying close to £1000 in travel and accommodation costs.
Saiz, one of few prominent players taken by Heckingbottom, captained Leeds in 33 degree heat. The Spaniard was the only first-team regular to appear in United’s starting line-up and his penalty was needed to level the match after the All-Stars struck first on 22 minutes.
Joseph Mpande, a Ugandan forward with Hantharwady United, beat Andy Lonergan with a close-range header after Sithu Aung crossed from the left but Saiz levelled from the spot within four minutes following a trip for Bryce Hosannah.
Hugo Diaz, the Spanish defender who made his first-team debut away at Preston North End last month, missed a headed chance on the half-hour and Sam Dalby also failed to score from close range under pressure just before half-time.
Heckingbottom made two changes at the break and another raft on the hour but Leeds fell behind soon after when Paudie O’Connor bundled into the back of Mpande. Chizoba, a player with Shan United, sent Bailey Peacock-Farrell the wrong way from the spot and Leeds were denied a second equaliser when Ryan Edmondson’s effort was ruled out for offside.
United’s players move on to Mandalay for Friday’s friendly against the Myanmar national side. Their squad are due to fly home on Sunday to begin their summer break.
Leeds United: Lonergan (Peacock-Farrell 46), Hosannah (Ayling 61), Diaz (O’Connor 61), Struijk (Clarke 61), Denton (Pearce 61) Rey (Phillips 61), Nicell (Shackleton 46), Grot (Gomes 61), Saiz (Vieira 61), Machuca (Ekuban 61), Dalby (Edmondson 61).