By OLIVER SLOW | FRONTIER
YANGON – English Championship club Leeds United opened their two-match tour to Myanmar with a defeat in Yangon on Wednesday night, as they went down 2-1 to a Myanmar National League Stars team at Thuwunna Stadium.
Since the tour was announced in April, the British club has faced considerable criticism, which comes as Myanmar’s military and its government stand accused of the “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya population in Rakhine State.
Following a military crackdown last August an estimated 700,000 people – overwhelmingly Rohingya – have fled over the border into Bangladesh. The military has largely denied any wrongdoing.
Leeds chairman Mr Andrea Radrizzani acknowledged the controversy in a statement published shortly after the tour was announced.
“I believe this tour will have a positive impact on the local community in parts of the country we intend to visit,” the statement said. “This was a carefully considered decision and we knew it would be controversial, but this is about people not governments.”
Leeds fans attending the game also dismissed much of the criticism.
“Ok there’s a problem that the government needs to sort out, but as football fans, I think the game brings a lot of pleasure,” said Mr John Brannon, who had travelled from Yorkshire for the game. “We came here to enjoy it, and we can see that the people are genuine and warm.”
Despite the criticism, there was a lively atmosphere as an estimated 15,000 people, overwhelmingly Myanmar, but with a few dozen diehards who had made the journey from the UK, packed into the stadium for the game.
The MNL side, made up of Myanmar players and those from abroad playing for local clubs, started the brightest and was ahead on 22 minutes, when Hanthawaddy United’s Joseph Mpande headed the ball past Leeds goalkeeper Andrew Lonergan.
Although Leeds started slowly – no doubt slowed by the 33 degree Celsius heat – the goal sparked them into life, and they were level on 26 minutes when Samuel Saiz converted from the penalty spot.
Both sides had their fair share of chances to take the lead before half time, but the scores were level at the break. Leeds and MNL made significant changes after the break – the former changing nine players on the 60 minute mark – but MNL continued to dominate.
The winner was scored by Christopher Chizoba, who converted the second penalty of the night, blasting home into the top left-hand corner.
Leeds pushed for a late equalizer, but were undone by their own poor finishing and some inspired saves by Myanmar stopper Naing Zayar Tun.
The Leeds fans were not too despondent after the final whistle.
“I’m not too worried about the result to be honest, I just really enjoyed the night,” said Leeds fan Mr Steve Burchill who had travelled from Thailand with his son, Joshua, to watch the game. “It’s all about this isn’t it?” he said as the crowd cheered both sides coming off the pitch.
The Myanmar fans also appeared to enjoy the evening.
“It was great that a team from England came here, and that we won,” said Ko Khin Hlaing Win, who said he was an Arsenal fan before the game. “But I’ll definitely be following Leeds closer now.”
In the post-match interview, Leeds manager Mr Paul Heckingbottom refused to be drawn on the controversy surrounding the tour, and said his team was just here “for the football”.
Leeds will next travel to Mandalay, where they will face the Myanmar national team on Friday night, for the final match of their tour.