No more glory in Burma’s top league for perennial contenders such as “Transportation,” “City Department” and “Finance and Revenue.” Burma is attempting to recapture the glory days of football in the country from the 1960s with its first professional league launching this week, but it’s one still tainted by crony connections to the Burmese junta.
David Paquette covers the launch of the new league in superb detail in The Irawaddy (a publication of Burmese exiles based in Thailand), explaining that
A capacity crowd gathered at Youth Training Center stadium in Rangoon’s Thinyangon Township for the opening game of the tournament—Yangon United FC against Zeya Shwe Myay FC.
Although tickets were officially priced at 500 to 1,000 kyat (US $0.50 to $1), touts were selling them outside the stadium before the match for ten times that amount. The game was preceded by a rock concert and an opening ceremony involving Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein. As for the match itself, Yangon United won 4-0.
The much anticipated competition features eight newly formed professional football clubs, representing Burma’s seven divisions plus Shan State.
The Myanmar Football Federation (MFF) hopes the tournament—which will be the forerunner to a national league in 2010—will draw in crowds of fans more accustomed to cheering English Premier League football on TV.
The new-look Burmese league replaces the old local divisions, which were dominated by mostly amateur government-department teams with lackluster names, such as “Transportation,” “City Department” and the serial champions, “Finance and Revenue.”
The aim of the league, launched with the backing of the Burmese junta, is to whitewash over Burma’s plagued past in the game. Corruption and financial problems have surround football in Burma for decades, culminating in the humiliation of the country withdrawing during the 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign and a subsequent ban from the 2006 World Cup by FIFA.
Though football plays second fiddle to another ball game, Chinlon, on the streets of Burma, it still remains a football-mad country at the grassroots despite the failures of the football authorities, with the Premier League followed especially closely, along with a considerable gambling habit on the sport.
Burma has a rich history in the game at the continental level (football was introduced to the country by the Scottish “rogue” and adventurer J George Scott in the nineteenth century).
Though Burma has never qualified for the World Cup, they were runners-up in the 1968 Asian Cup and won Gold at the Asian Games of 1966 and 1970.
An excellent piece in The Global Game from 2003 highlights Burma’s pride in its past:
For much of the 1960s, the team was led by the Ghurka-born striker from Shan State, Suk Bahadur—the Pelé of Burmese football, who was also a dominating tennis and field hockey player as well as the national 100-meter sprint champion. Marshalling the midfield for much of that time was Maung Maung Tun, nicknamed “mountain man” for his uncompromising style of play. Their abilities to carve apart defenses earned Burma the status as one of the continent’s most-feared football sides.
Historian John F. Cady writes in his book The United States and Burma that following consecutive victories in international matches in 1970–71, “proficiency in soccer became a significant mark of Burmese identity and prestige.”
Indeed, football provided a strong focus for the representation of Burma to the rest of Asia. The list of Burma’s football “heroes” meanwhile provides an epic narrative of sorts in which the “beautiful game” has made an important contribution to the construction of the nation.
Alarmingly, the new league may be more about the ruling regime and their cronies attempts to provide bread & circuses and to line their own pockets than any genuine attempt at supporting a revival of the sport, as the Irawadday explains:
However, the promotion of the new soccer league may well be related to next year’s election, say some observers, and could be used as a campaign tool by the ruling generals.
“It is quite obvious that the government wants the public to vote for military-sponsored parties in next year’s election,” said one observer in Rangoon. “It will therefore provide things that the public like, such as football and pagodas.”
Democracy for Burma reports that “Most of these club owners are cronies of the military junta and they are blacklisted under the US economic sanction imposed on Burma.”
Tay Za of Htoo Co. owns Rangoon United, Kanbawza Bank banker Aung Ko Win owns Kanbawza Club, Alpine Drinking Water owner Dr. Sai Sem Tun owns Yadanabon Club, Asian World Co. owner Tun Myint Naing owns Magwe Club, Htay Myint from Yuzana Co. owns Southern Burmese United, ITBC Liquor Co. owner Aung Moe Kyaw owns Oktha United Club, Aden Co. Chit Khaing owns Delta United and Shwe Nagar Co. owner Win Myint owns Zeya Shwe Myay Club, totaling 8 private football clubs.
One sports journal editor suggested the Burmese people will not buy into the new league (and indeed, crowds were already reportedly down for the second round of matches):
Asports journal editor told the Irrawaddy that “Each soccer club is located in a different region, because the club chairman will be expected to deal with and influence local people in the campaign leading up to next year’s election.
“But I am not sure if people will be interested in this government ploy,” he said. “I think Burmese football supporters would rather stay home and watch English Premier League football on TV.”
Of course, that seems to go for fans in most developing football countries around the world these days, but Burma’s new league seems even less likely to wash with its blatant cronyism, even if the names have changed from the likes of “Finance and Revenue” to “United FC”. It’s doubtful Burma will ever erase cronyism from the sport as long as the junta remains in charge.
Photo credits: Strangesky on Flickr.