Leeds United suffered an embarrassing 2-1 defeat Wednesday in the first friendly of a tour to Myanmar that has stoked controversy over whether the club should be playing in a country condemned for its treatment of its Rohingya community.
The second-tier English side are seeking to build up a fan base in the Southeast Asian nation and went into the match against the Myanmar National League “All Stars” team in Yangon as clear favourites.
The side failed to perform, however, despite a first-half equaliser by captain Samuel Saiz in front of the 19,000-strong crowd who had stumped up the 3 USD for tickets.
All Stars’ Nigerian striker Christopher Chizoba clinched the match with a 63rd-minute penalty against an under-par Leeds team still reeling from a disappointing mid-table finish back home.
But the interest in this tour has not just been about what happens on the pitch.
British MPs from the club’s home city and Amnesty International criticised the choice of Myanmar as a tour destination for its questionable human rights record.
Myanmar’s military has forced some 700,000 of its Rohingya Muslim population over the border into Bangladesh since August last year in violence the UN has branded as “ethnic cleansing”.
Italian tycoon and club owner Andrea Radrizzani, who has business interests in Myanmar, defended the visit at his arrival to the stadium.
“We do sport. We do football. We’re not politicians,” he said.
“How many other areas are there in the world -— also in China, in other parts of the world -— where there are abuses,” he added.
But Myanmar football fans gave Leeds a warm welcome.
“By deciding to come here, it shows they’re sticking to their guns and not giving into criticism and that’s why I’m proud of them,” said 35-year-old Sabel, sporting a red Myanmar shirt.