English football’s money men got their claws into the Far East many years ago but Burma is one of the outposts the game is yet to reach. A volatile and politically-senstive country, Leeds United are genuinely breaking new ground with a two-match tour which raises commercial and ethical questions.
Commercial factors have driven the club’s decision to play two friendlies in the cities of Yangon and Mandalay next month, in the week after their Championship season ends. The trip will act as a warm-weather training camp of sorts for a squad with plenty of injured or recovering players but Leeds and their owner, Andrea Radrizzani, are trying to tap into the Myanmar economy. United, as far as they can tell, will be the first English team to visit Burma since the 1930s.
Both fixtures, against a Myanmar National League All-Stars line-up on May 9 and the Burma national team on May 11, are expected to attract crowds of between 20,000 and 30,000, with tickets selling for as little as two dollars (£1.50).
Far East Asia has been so heavily saturated by powerful Premier League clubs that Leeds believed a trip to somewhere more conventional – Signapore, Malaysia or China – would involve considerably higher ticket prices, attract limited interest and leave them playing in front of half-empty stadiums. Burma offers a more captive market.
The AYA Bank Tour 2018, as the trip has been branded, is being financed by U Zaw Zaw, a Burmese national, a billionaire businessman and an associate of Radrizzani’s.
Zaw Zaw has considerable influence, running the AYA Bank, the Myanmar National League and Burma’s Football Association. Radrizzani also retains business interests in the region and his TV sports rights firm, Eleven Sports, has deals in place in Signapore and Taiwan. A statement from Leeds hinted at commercial benefits for Radrizzani, revealing that his investment company Aser had intiated the trip.
“The tour is part of the Aser’s ongoing commitment to partnerships in the region,” it said.
Leeds plan to take most of their first-team players, reasoning that the club’s Championship season would be ongoing had their squad made the play-offs. Some with international commitments, like World Cup-bound Pontus Jansson and Macedonia’s Gjanni Alioski, will be left behind.
Last weekend, after their 2-1 win over Barnsley, United sent managing director Angus Kinnear to Burma - renamed as Myanmar by a military junta in 1989 - to carry out assessments of Thuwunna Stadium in Yangon and Mandalar Thiri Stadium in Mandalay, the two venues where Leeds will play.
Both meet with FIFA standards and have appropriate medical facilities, including ambulances and defibrilators. United have arranged separately for a private plane to be on stand-by should any injuries require more extensive treatment in Singapore.
The club are also paying for a local doctor and native speaker to travel with their players over the course of the trip. Burma, like several countries in the Far East, carries the risk of transmission of the Zika virus, an infection which if passed on can lead to birth defects in unborn babies. United have briefed their players about medication and will pay for individual tests for the virsus on their return to England. Leeds insist that their squad are happy with the tour, despite the fact that the friendlies will extend their season – and cut their summer holiday – by another week.
As part of the schedule, Leeds will attempt to make contributions to the local population by running football clinics at Burma’s two biggest academies and making visits to cultural sites.
But the contentious aspect of the trip is the boost it gives to the profile of a country which has suffered deep political unrest in the past 12 months, some of it leading to accusations of ethnic cleansing by the current regime.
The government is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a former Nobel Peace Prize winner who was returned from exile to win Burma’s first open election for a quarter-of-a-century in 2015.
Last year, amid fighting between the Burmese regime and militants, thousands of Rohinga Musilms were forced to flee over the border and seek refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh. Suu Kyi has faced calls for her Nobel Peace Prize to be removed. As recently as last month, an official at the United Nations likened the displacement of the Rohinga Muslims to ethnic cleansing.
The UK Foreign Office now advices against all but essential travel to several parts of Burma. Yangon, to the south, and Mandalay further north both lie outside the more dangerous zones. The Foreign Office website warns that “political tension and unrest could happen at short notice” but says “most visits are trouble-free.”
Leeds are yet to issue travel advice of their own but a small number of supporters are expected to make the 13-hour flight. Leeds finish their season at home to Queens Park Rangers on May 6 and are likely to travel the following day to be ready for their first friendly on May 9. Paul Heckingbottom will use the unscheduled matches as a last chance to work with his players before they depart for the summer but the club’s interest in Burma is essentially financial, entering a market which no other English club has touched. Money talks and Leeds United might find some out there.