The Myanmar National League’s season to forget

Myanmar’s premier football league has endured a season of crises, with two top-tier teams dropping out, another being expelled and a fourth becoming the victim of an alleged coup plot in Turkey.

By HTUN KHAING | FRONTIER

THE Myanmar National League’s season of disorder ended on October 29 when Shan United celebrated its first title win with with a comfortable 4-0 win over Hanthawady United.

The victory came at the end of a nine-month season of confusion that the MNL would presumably rather forget.

A record four clubs withdrew from the MNL before or during the season, some for reasons linked to the change of government in 2016, which had repercussions for team owners with close links to the defeated Union Solidarity and Development Party.

The MNL launched in 2009 with eight clubs, replacing the Myanmar Premier League and its 14 Yangon-based clubs, most of which represented government ministries.

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When the 2017 season started in January, MNL-1 and MNL-2 each had 12 teams. The team that finishes top of the MNL-2 table advances to MNL-1, replacing the team that finishes bottom of the top division.

Even before the season began on January 14, two clubs had withdrawn from the MNL and been disbanded: Zeya Shwe Myay, representing Sagaing Region, and Manaw Myay, representing Kachin State.

Zeya Shwe Myay, an MNL-1 club, was founded by U Win Myint, a commerce minister in the previous USDP government. Win Myint, a core member of the military-linked party, was close to President U Thein Sein and other members of the previous ruling junta.

The club had regarded Monywa Stadium in the Sagaing capital its home ground but its fortunes changed after the National League for Democracy’s landslide triumph in the 2015 election.

On August 12, 2016, the Sagaing Region Hluttaw, in which the NLD had the previous November won 69 of the 76 elected seats – and the USDP’s representation was slashed from 62 seats to five – decided to return the stadium to the people of Monywa. The decision resulted in Zeya Shwe Myay being disbanded.

The change of government was also a factor in the dissolution of Manaw Myay, which was promoted to MNL-1 in 2017 after winning the MNL-2 premiership the previous season.

Manaw Myay was owned by the family of U Zahkung Ting Yang, leader of the New Democratic Party-Kachin, and its armed wing, a Border Guard Force.

In the 2015 election, Zahkung Ting Yang was elected to represent Kachin-5 constituency in the Amyotha Hluttaw, but the result was annulled by the Union Election Commission and his NLD rival, U Yaw Na, was declared the winner.

After losing an appeal over the decision, Zahkung Ting Yang’s family decided to end its financial support for the club.

The departure of the two clubs from the MNL-1 disrupted the season before it began. More disruption came when Nay Pyi Taw and City Yangon withdrew from the competition towards the end of the season.

The Nay Pyi Taw club, representing the national capital, was formed in 2010 and was owned by U Phyo Ko Ko Tint San, 41, a hotelier and the son of U Tint San, who was minister of sports and minister of hotels and tourism, in the USDP government.

At an emergency meeting of the MNL committee on September 12, Nay Pyi Taw was expelled from the league after its players complained of not having been paid since April. The expulsion came after players boycotted a game in early September.

On October 15, Phyo Ko Ko Tint San was arrested at Nay Pyi Taw International Airport on charges of illegally possessing arms, ammunition, narcotics and communications devices. He remains in custody.

The Nay Pyi Taw club was also forced to shift training venues after the change of government, when residents at Pyinmana, on the outskirts of Nay Pyi Taw, campaigned successfully against its use of the Paung Laung Stadium. The club had to hire the capital’s multi-purpose, 30,000 capacity Wunna Theikdi Stadium – built for the 2013 Southeast Asian Games – as its home ground.

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Yangon United squares off against Shan United at Aung San Stadium on October 25. (Theint Mon Soe aka J | Frontier)

An unsuccessful coup attempt in Turkey in July last year created a crisis for City Yangon that forced its departure from the MNL. It was a big disappointment for the club, which won the 2017 MNL-2 championship to end the season undefeated.

City Yangon, which joined the MNL as Horizon FC in 2012, was closely linked to international schools established in Yangon, Nay Pyi and Mandalay as part of the global network of Istanbul-based Horizon Education Group.

The Turkish government accused Horizon International schools worldwide of being linked to the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, who it blames for the failed coup. Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, denies involvement.

Despite the Horizon group denying any involvement in the alleged coup plot, the Myanmar government in May deported a senior manager at the Horizon International school in Yangon and has refused to renew the visas of another 44 Turkish citizens.

On October 29, City Yangon announced it was disbanding the club.

Last week, it was announced that the military-owned football club Myawaddy Football Club, who are based in Nay Pyi Taw and last season played in MNL-2, would replace City Yangon in MNL-1 for the 2018 season.

Referee quits

Controversy also surrounded U Win Htut, one of Myanmar’s four FIFA-recognised referees, after he oversaw a match between Shan United and Yangon United in Taunggyi on September 24.

In the last minute of the match, which ended in a 0-0 draw, Shan United appealed for a penalty when one of their players was tackled inside the penalty box. Win Htut rejected the penalty appeal, and then refused to conduct a media interview after the match, citing international rules and regulations that prevent referees from speaking with the press.

Shan United submitted a complaint and although the league committee initially supported Win Htut it later reversed its decision and said he had made a number of mistakes in the match. He was subsequently banned from refereeing for the rest of the season. In protest at the decision, Win Htut retired.

Foreign players

MNL rules require a club to register 30 players, of whom a maximum of four can be foreigners, including at least one from the 47 member associations of the Asian Football Confederation.

Most Myanmar clubs recruit foreign players from African countries because they are skilled, but not expensive. Foreigners account for 13 percent of MNL players and they scored 161 of the 329 goals scored in the MNL-1 season.

The award for top scorer during the season was shared by Shan United striker, Christopher Chizoba, a Nigerian, and Ayeyarwady striker, Keith Martu Nah, from Liberia, who scored 15 goals each. Five of the six top scorers last season were from Africa.

A new champion

Shan United’s premiership triumph ended a run of wins by Yangon United and Mandalay-based Yadanarbon, which had dominated the championships since the MNL was formed in 2009, winning four titles each.

Shan United, which had changed its name from Kanbawza in 2015, had two reasons to celebrate this year. On October 25, it won the General Aung San Shield, beating Yangon United at the commercial capital’s Aung San Stadium to win the knockout competition.

A curious decision

When the MNL committee expelled Nay Pyi Taw on September 12, the Myanmar Football Federation ruled that clubs due to play the ousted side in the remaining rounds would be given a 3-0 win and awarded three points. However, the MNL – which is run by the MFF – said results would stand from games already played against Nay Pyi Taw.

Among the clubs that cried foul was GFA, representing Chin State, whose players showed their displeasure by boycotting a game against Yadanarbon at Aung San Stadium on September 19.

The curious points ruling meant that GFA, which was promoted along with Nay Pyi Taw to MNL-1 for the 2017 season, was unable to escape relegation.

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