Leeds United, their Myanmar muddle and football's most boggling tours


By the time you read this column, ideally, it will have been overtaken by fast-moving events involving Leeds United and the Myanmar regime accused of ethnic cleansing and multiple human rights abuses. However, at the time of going to so-called press, Leeds had delightedly announced they had booked a two-match tour of Myanmar, with planned friendlies in Yangon and Mandalay. The games were due to take place shortly after the domestic campaign ends, with the players apparently “very excited for the chance”. As rewards for a season go it tends toward the idiosyncratic, though some Leeds fans may have judged it much deserved.

As the club’s managing director, Angus Kinnear, put it: “Myanmar is one of the fastest-growing nations in south-east Asia and is passionate about English football.” Yes. It’s not everyone’s top line about Myanmar these days – but I guess Angus isn’t playing Family Fortunes. Instead his survey said: “They have ambitious goals for grassroots and elite football development that we are delighted to be able to support. This tour gives us an opportunity to meet new fans of football who will hopefully support our journey back to the Premier League in the coming years.”

Quite a leap, there. Still, you have to admire how the Premier League makes everything about itself, one way or another. Absolutely nothing can resist its tractor beam. Meanwhile if you’re wondering “why Myanmar?” it turns out the Leeds owner, Andrea Radrizzani, owns a telly rights package in the region.

Even so, students of the news cycle may predict this tour will soon be abruptly cancelled – an eventuality which no one without the internet could have foreseen. It will serve as a reminder that modern football is essentially a never-ending game of four-dimensional chess, with clubs expected not simply to navigate the Championship or wherever they play, but to have a vague idea of which countries in the world are being accused of ethnic cleansing or even genocide. Clearly some are struggling to adapt to these new and complex expectations.

And yet, were there hints Leeds missed? Almost immediately after announcing the news, the club sent a second communication, reading: “More information on travelling to Myanmar will be released shortly and we advise supporters to wait for further advice.”

Arguably advice was already out there, what with the Foreign Office website offering comprehensive warnings on travel to Myanmar. Among other pointers, this advises avoiding “all large gatherings”, describes terrorism as likely, and mentions something called Zika Virus, which turns out not to be a potential midfield signing. The headline issue, however, is the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, which a tour might be viewed as legitimising.

Then again this is an age where people are constantly required to decide on which source of information to trust. Clearly there are some who are always going to cling to legacy information sources such as the Foreign Office or the UN. But others will increasingly prefer a fearless alt-source. Faced with the choice between the FCO and Leeds for a verdict on the situation in Myanmar, they’d go with Leeds every time. As would Aung San Suu Kyi, I imagine.

Speaking of whom, Leeds’ apparent failure to have a clue about the local situation is arguably the most eyebrow-raising Myanmar muddle since Suu Kyi claimed listening to Dave Lee Travis had been her lifeline in years of house arrest – only for it later to have transpired she’d confused DLT with Bob Holness. (Still, what goes around comes around – it turned out the rest of the world had confused Suu Kyi with a decent person.)

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Anyway it is a tribute to the malarial atmosphere of modern football that such a tour could be suggested and get as far as being booked before questions intervened. It may yet be one of the most eye-catching cultural tours of Burma since Rambo pitched up in the eponymous 2008 movie, with the aim of rescuing some Christian missionaries.

Much has changed since then of course – but if only Sylvester Stallone could be persuaded to undertake one final tour of Myanmar. I’ve heard he can be quite handy as a goalkeeper, which may be of interest to Leeds, having had some bad luck in this department of late.

Ultimately though, it would still not be the most completely boggling football odyssey. The big one is surely a pre-season tour by the US soccerball side the Dallas Tornado in 1967, where they managed two draws in Vietnam (far from the worst US results in the country at that time). Indeed the Vietnam stops were only part of a 49-match, 27-country, seven-month world tour which also saw the Tornado being stoned in Singapore – with actual stones, not cannabis – and missing a plane from Athens which was later blown up by Greek Cypriot terrorists.

There’s a wonderful account of the tour on what is now the FC Dallas website. We’ll play out with the bit where half the side end up marooned overnight in a “jungle hut” between the Pakistan-India border without food, water or visas. They eventually barter footballs and shin guards for some and are finally led to safety when their guide cuts a hole through the border fence in the dead of night.

“We truly expected to get shot, or even worse, get attacked by a tiger or some other wild dangerous animal,” reflected one of their number 50 years on. “What a sight it must have been. Eleven young, scared to death soccer players wearing their Texas cowboy hats and carrying their suitcases, entering India through a fence hole.”

Top that, Leeds.



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