Paul Heckingbottom insisted today that he held no objections to Leeds United’s controversial tour of Burma, despite describing the friendlies as “irrelevant” and admitting he would make no demands of the performance of his players.
Heckingbottom responded to questions about a trip which has received heavy criticism since it was announced on Tuesday by saying the two-match visit to Burma was “our job” and warning that players would not be excused from it unless they raised “legitimate” concerns.
Leeds have caused a diplomatic stir by revealing their intention to play a Myanmar National League All-Stars team on May 9 and Burma’s national side on May 11, in the week after their Championship season ends.
The tour is commercially driven, an attempt by Leeds to raise their profile in the Far East, but the club and owner Andrea Radrizzani have been accused of giving legitimacy to a government which faces accusations of genocide and human rights abuses against minority groups in the country.
Radrizzani attempted to quell the criticism on Wednesday by publishing a lengthy open letter in which he claimed the trip was about “people not governments.” “This was a carefully considered decision and we knew it would be controversial,” he said.
The Italian, however, faced fresh calls to abandon the friendlies today, with Fabian Hamilton, the Labour MP for Leeds North East, tweeting: “Leeds United must cancel this planned tour of Myanmar immediately. The genocide and suffering of the Rohingya Muslims is not only an extremely serious breach of international law but a crime against humanity.”
Heckingbottom, United’s head coach, admitted he had not been given the final say on the tour, describing it as a “club decision”, but said he and his players had no reason to refuse to travel.
“It’s our job, isn’t it,” said the 40-year-old, who took no questions from the media on his views on the political situation in Burma. “We’re professional people. Would they (the players) be happy if it was held in Ibiza and it was a tournament, or something like that? It’s a job, it’s what you have to do.
“We’re going to try and get some spirit out of it. It’s not a trip where I can honestly assess players in terms of performance. It’s not set up properly in terms of the travel for us to go there and perform very well. It is for different issues so the performance won’t be judged. It’s more for the team to get together and I’m hoping one or two players will get the minutes they need.
“It’ll be a small squad - not ideal in terms of numbers we can take with the weather out there and lots of travel. The football’s going to be irrelevant in a way because of the travelling we do, the temperature we play in and the smallness of the squad but it’ll be a good opportunity to get the staff and players together.”
Heckingbottom, whose side were due to receive further innoculations today, is yet to finalise his travelling party. Sweden international Pontus Jansson will be left behind ahead of his likely call-up for this summer’s World Cup and Pablo Hernandez is also due to miss the trip with his wife expecting to give birth in the next fortnight.
“We don’t know who’s going yet,” Heckingbottom said. “We’ve got lots of people getting vaccinated, lots of people on standby dependent on injuries and personal circumstances. We’ve got lots of players who won’t be going regardless.
“We’ve got players who are possibly away on international duty, players whose partners are expecting, players who have other issues at the end of the season. The squad will be different and it’ll be made up of players who are available to go and can get some benefit out of the trip.”
Radrizzani has so far refused to bow to pressure to abandon the tour, insisting in his open letter that Leeds would travel as planned. The club sent managing director Angus Kinnear to Burma last weekend to assess the stadiums in Yangon and Mandalay and discuss medical provisions.
The Foreign Office warns against all but essential travel to parts of Burma - United’s friendlies are situated outside those zones - and also classes the country as a high-risk area for the Zika virus. Leeds have agreed to pay for all of their players to undergo tests for the Zika virus after they return to England.
Heckingbottom said: “The club are going through the right processes to make sure it’s a trip that goes off smoothly and a trip we get something out of.
“Players might have concerns and we have to put them to rest and make sure they’re comfortable with everything. We’re employed by the club. It’s not me picking a squad based on football reasons. We have to go and do our job.
“But if there are concerns they have to be legitimate concerns and then there have to be things put in place to alleviate those concerns. It won’t be down to me saying ‘okay, you’re not going.’ It has to be something legitimate.
“You can image as soon as it’s announced, players and staff going straight on the Internet - what are we going to face? They probably didn’t sleep that night. It’s never as bad as you think but we have to take all the precautions. Players are going to go out there to enjoy it and enjoy the experience. It’s a part of the world where you might never get the chance to travel again.”