Andrea Radrizzani has confirmed that Leeds United will go ahead with a controversial tour of Burma despite mounting criticism of their plan to play two friendlies there next month.
In an open letter published this afternoon, Radrizzani responded to pressure to call off the trip by insisting the tour of crisis-hit Burma was “about people not governments” and offered a chance to “use sport to do some good.”
Leeds intend to travel to the Far East in the week after their Championship season ends, with matches scheduled against a Myanmar National League All-Stars team in Yangon on May 9 and Burma’s national team in Mandalay on May 11.
The visit will also include football clinics at two of Burma’s academies and trips to a number of cultural sites but the plan received widespread condemnation when it was announced yesterday.
Burma has been the scene of severe political violence in the past 12 months and the ruling government face accusations of genocide and ethnic cleansing after killing and displacing thousands of Rohingya Muslims on the country’s western border.
MPs and charities, including Amnesty International, have attacked Radrizzani’s decision to go there and the Leeds United Supporters Club of Scandinavia spoke out today to warn that the games would “damage Leeds United’s reputation and standing” by offering direct or indirect support to the current regime.
The visit to Burma, which has been branded as the AYA Bank Tour 2018, is being privately funded by a local businessman and an associate of Radrizzani’s with high-level influence over the country’s Football Association and National League.
Radrizzani has a TV rights deal in the region but the Italian claimed today that Leeds would receive no payment for appearing in Burma, despite the tour being driven by commercial reasons.
Radrizzani said: “Football is extremely popular in Myanmar and I believe the game we all love has the power to help developing nations by bringing people together, especially young people.
“That is why I wanted to take the team on a post-season tour to play matches and run coaching clinics with children from the area. The club is not receiving any fee to play. Rather I see this both as 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. This was a carefully considered decision and we knew it would be controversial but this is about people not governments.
“It has never been my intention, nor that of the club, to get involved in a political debate in Myanmar. However, if because of the tour we further highlight the ongoing serious issues in certain areas of the country then maybe that is positive thing.
"We simply want to use sport to do some good. I am proud to be active in another region in southeast Asia where I support via Play For Change, a local NGO in Nepal, in providing sports and educational activities to over 4000 underprivileged children.
“We can’t spread our values by turning our backs, we can only do this by engaging. We will go to Myanmar to share the famous values and ethos of Leeds United Football Club.”
Radrizzani, who controls the broadcast rights firm Eleven Sports, conceded to holding business interests in the region, among them a TV contract in Singapore, and admitted he was seeking to expand his reach into Burma.
“I have spent over 10 years living in Asia and Myanmar is a country I have visited on many occasions,” he said.
“I am aware of the serious issues within the country but I also know that it is a beautiful place filled with incredibly warm and welcoming people. It is somewhere very close to my heart.
“I also want to be clear that I am active in the southeast Asia region with ongoing business practices that provide jobs and help to develop the local sports and media sectors. I have similar goals for Myanmar, along with many other British businesses that trade with and operate in the country presently.”
The Labour MP and shadow sports minister, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, wrote directly to Radrizzani yesterday, voicing her “anger and dismay” at the decision to tour Burma.
Allin-Khan, who has been heavily involved in highlighting human rights abuses in the country, wrote: “Leeds United has a fanbase across the world, many of whom will be dismayed by the news. Do you honestly believe your fans want the club they’ve supported all their lives to start endorsing a state carrying out such awful atrocities on innocent people?
“It is imperative that Leeds United is on the right side of history. I sincerely hope you will reconsider your post-season tour.”
She subsequently criticised today's open letter from Radrizzani, tweeting: "It's misinformed and manages to ignore the suffering of almost 1 million Rohingya refugees."
A statement from the Leeds United Supporters Club of Scandinavia echoed the call to scrap the friendlies, saying: “The trip will damage Leeds United’s reputation and standing. We fear that the club, the players and supporters will be associated as directly or indirectly supporting the Myanmar government, a government that has a lot of answer for regarding human rights violations.
“We can’t see any good sporting reason for the trip. Leeds United is a football club renowned for its social work and many contributions in the community. The scheduled Myanmar trip will put the club in a bad light. The club should really reconsider.”