Gordon Strachan once said “We don’t have any morals in football,” and he was right, but he didn’t go far enough. Not only does football have no morals, but football is a chilling destroyer of morality.
Say, for example, you wanted to take a moral position against Leeds United’s proposed tour of Myanmar, because the government there is currently accused of being complicit in the military’s ongoing genocide of Rohingya people in Rakhine state. Football will tell you that you didn’t care about that last week so you can’t care now. Then football will raise all football’s other moral questions, like the Russia World Cup or the Qatar World Cup, and tell you that unless you said something about those you can’t say anything about this. Then football will tell you that no matter what you think or say about any of those situations football will still be played anyway, so why don’t you just shut the fuck up.
And enjoy the game.
The awful thing is that football almost always wins this argument, and it’s us fans who end up being complicit, finding ourselves on the wrong side of moral fences because we like watching our team kick a football and the fences are much too high to climb. The Russia World Cup: well, I mean, I chose ‘Moscowhite’ as a screen name, a pun on ‘Muscovite’, in the late nineties when I was about seventeen and now I’m stuck with it. But I will be sitting down to watch Pontus Jansson for Sweden, Yosuke Ideguchi for Japan and Samu Saiz for Spain with the rest of the world, although I will be wondering about the curious lack of major international sponsors at this tournament compared to past ones, and what that means. Qatar is a more interesting case, because since Andrea Radrizzani brought Ivan Bravo on to the board at Elland Road, I have been writing articles to at least illuminate the link between Leeds United and Qatar’s Aspire Academy and the World Cup, but because that link remains very obscure and the World Cup remains very far off, it’s hard to find a coherent answer about the implications in LS11. Also, pressure from Amnesty and other human-rights organisations does appear to have brought about improvements in conditions for workers building the World Cup stadiums, so sometimes that sort of thing gets results.
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As for Myanmar, I only knew whatever I’d heard on the news. It sounded like the sort of terrible situation that, once you’ve heard enough to have your stomach churned, like any insulated and reasonably affluent fortunate living in a stable country, you want to escape from by visiting Leeds United dot com and watching videos of Samu Saiz chipping the Kop Cat. Until this week, when visiting Leeds United dot com brought me face to face with a big banner advert for MYANMAR TOUR 2018 and there wasn’t much choice anymore but to learn as much as I could about the situation as quickly as possible. Or, y’know, ignore it, because football.
If you decide not to ignore it, you don’t really need to learn much. This Q&A in New York magazine is a good explanation of the history and the current persecution, beginning in late August 2017, that has left 10,000 Rohingya dead and caused almost half a million to flee to Bangladesh as refugees. This Reuters report from Wednesday says the US government is in the refugee camps right now, gathering “accusations of murder, rape, beatings and other possible offences in an investigation that could be used to prosecute Myanmar’s military for crimes against humanity.” The Myanmar government’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, says nothing is happening, for which she has been condemned internationally, with some observers suggesting she should be stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize.
That ought to be enough information to suggest that now is a bad time to play a high profile football match in Myanmar, against the Myanmar national team. “It has never been my intention, nor that of the club, to get involved in a political debate in Myanmar,” wrote Andrea Radrizzani in his open letter to explain the tour, and I’m sure that’s true, but in that case, why not leave it for a year, or at least until international fact-finding missions have finished documenting atrocities? It might have been easier to avoid the political debate that way.
The other way is to bellow over and over that politics should be kept out of football, as many have been doing on social media towards Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, the Labour MP for Tooting, who has written to Radrizzani asking him to cancel the tour, criticised his response, and asked to speak to him in an effort to make him reconsider. What is the Labour MP for Tooting doing, sticking her nose into Leeds United’s affairs; why is she dragging her politics into our football? Well, as Allin-Khan makes clear in the speeches she’s been making in the House of Commons about the Rohingya people since last October, she is also a doctor, who has visited the camps in Bangladesh as a medical worker, treating the refugees and hearing their stories first hand, and she has been campaigning vigorously for the perpetrators of the genocide to be called to account. She’s also the Shadow Minister for Sport. Rather than asking who rattled Allin-Khan’s cage, we should be asking why Leeds United chose to land with a two-footed tackle right in the middle of her business.
“Football is extremely popular in Myanmar,” says Radrizzani in his open letter, “and I believe the game we all love has the power to help developing nations by bringing people together, especially young people. That is why I wanted to take the team on a post-season tour to play matches and run coaching clinics with children from the area … We simply want to use sport to do some good.”
Sport, even football, the destroyer of morals, does also have the power to do good. But Radrizzani is misapplying that power by touring Myanmar now. “If because of the tour we further highlight the ongoing serious issues in certain areas of the country, then maybe that is a positive thing,” he adds, clutching at the most desperate of straws, but if he was sincere about enacting change he would be telling the government in Myanmar, where he says he is “active” with “ongoing business practices”, that he would love to bring Kalvin Phillips and co over to run some coaching courses for the kids, but that’s not going to be possible until something is done about the genocide, so have a think about that, and let us know. That’s the traditional way of using sport to stop bad things happening and replace them with good things: you boycott and protest about the bad things, offering to do good things once the bad things have stopped.
Instead, as it stands, and as Dr Allin-Khan points out, UK Parliamentarians are being denied visas to visit Myanmar to see what’s happening in Rakhine state for themselves, but Kalvin is being waved right in. Because the government, that issues those visas, thinks one will be bad for its international public image, but not the other. And they’re right, if the statement from Leeds United’s spokesperson to the Supporters’ Trust is anything to go by: “We see this as an opportunity for Leeds United to be pioneers and break down barriers and build relationships with the people and business community within a country trying to emerge from a difficult past,” they said, as if that “difficult past” was decades ago, not a genocide that started around the same time Ezgjan Alioski was scoring his goal of the season contender at Nottingham Forest. I suppose one way to keep politics out of football is to talk as if they’re not happening, but saying “serious issues” and “difficult past” when the United Nations are saying “genocide” and “right now” is about as politically involved as language can get.
But let’s not pretend that “bringing people together” is the real reason for Leeds United’s tour. That goes to the root of Strachan’s outburst about football having no morals. “Over the years I have played there has been wife-batterers, drink-driving incidents, infidelity, Eric Cantona jumping into the crowd and kung-fu-ing someone in the chest. The clubs stand by them … If these things had been done by youth team players — who don’t have any importance to the first team — they get sacked. But because they can bring in merchandise and bring in money, then [clubs] will back them to the hilt.”
Radrizzani says “The Club is not receiving any fee to play” in Myanmar, as if that puts an end to the discussion about profit, but that’s about as credible as the club’s claim that there was no commercial impetus behind the Salute Crest, despite them also saying that the rebrand was designed to appeal to foreign markets. Radrizzani says he sees the tour, “Both as a personal initiative to support local football and a way to introduce the name of Leeds United in the fastest growing country in Southeast Asia”, the second half of which was at least part of the original announcement before the backlash: “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,” was the quote from managing director Angus Kinnear, adding that it would also be a chance for some players recovering from injuries to get match fitness. Nothing was being said about “bringing people together” until it was clear that the tour was lining people up against Leeds.
If the club is not receiving any fee to play, Andrea Radrizzani must think fees will accrue in the future, either from eager Burmese fans replicating the experience of watching Laurens De Bock in the flesh at a quid a ticket by paying five times that to see a game on LUTV; or via some sort of partnership with the tour’s ‘supporter’ AYA Bank: it is the AYA Bank Tour 2018, after all, but remember, they’re not paying Leeds United anything to name our post-season tour after them. AYA Bank was founded by a man named Zaw Zaw, who just happens to be President of the Myanmar Football Federation, and a billionaire, and have links to Myanmar’s previous military regime, and a relationship with the current government, and you’d imagine he could be quite helpful to someone like Radrizzani, who says he has “ongoing business practices” in the region, such as his television channel Eleven Broadcasting, one of just two channels carrying coverage of the AYA Bank Tour 2018 launch on YouTube. As it said in the third paragraph of Leeds United’s initial announcement, “The tour is part of the Aser’s ongoing commitment to partnerships in the region,” the Aser Group (they seem to have typed their own name wrong) being the parent company, founded by Radrizzani, of both Leeds United and Eleven Broadcasting.
Which puts us, the fans, in the curiously double-complicit position of supporting a football club that is being seen to endorse a regime engaging in genocide, so that undisclosed benefits might accrue to our club’s owner’s investment company. Or it would be curious if this wasn’t football, so that our club’s reduction to the status of a pawn in all this can be glossed over because a few kids — not, one assumes, Rohingya refugees — will get a coaching clinic with Hadi Sacko.
And it would be enough to get angry about, if it wasn’t for the knowledge that so effective is football’s morality-killing machinery in 2018, that when the tour comes around I’ll be sat watching it on LUTV, writing about the matches for you to read, clipping videos of the players looking confused in front of the sacred Shwedagon Pagoda; same as I’ll watch the World Cup wherever it’s held; same as I’ll always give in because I made the choice, years ago, to enjoy watching people kicking footballs around. So the only person really left to be angry at, while I curse Andrea Radrizzani for this senseless tour, is myself, as I sit the fuck down, shut the fuck up, and enjoy the fucking game. ◉
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