“We are just coming to play football with our friends from the local football federation. We are not against any government, we are not discriminating anyone, we are against violence, we are just playing football and we enjoy the people. Look around,” said Andrea Radrizzani in Myanmar this week. “We are just here to play football and hopefully bring some joy to the fans who came here to watch this friendly game.”
Of course, if you look around too much in Yangon, you might notice that the state-controlled media suppresses news of things like, say, genocide being carried out by the Myanmar military, replacing it with promotion involving things like banks and football teams, but I guess that point has been made now. And Leeds United are there anyway.
“We are just here for football,” said Paul Heckingbottom, who has changed his tune since Sunday. What he said then was, “It’s not a football trip,” reiterating what he had been saying since the tour was announced. Because of the travel, the lack of players, the conditions, he’d said, “The football’s going to be irrelevant in a way,” adding on Sunday, “I’m not there for the football, I’m there for the club, for the team, for the players.”
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I guess the thirteen hour flight was plenty of time for Radrizzani to get Heckingbottom’s story into line. Unfortunately from the coach’s point of view, he could only switch his talking points after Leeds United had lost at football to the Myanmar National League All-Stars, when ‘We’re not here for the football’ would have been the ideal excuse.
Football in this sense is being used to excuse much more than a sweaty defeat in a slow friendly. It was clear in the game that Heckingbottom was right: from a football point of view, all he’ll learn on this trip is that jetlagged teenagers struggle to play football in 65% humidity. Whenever the camera cut to the Leeds United bench, Heckingbottom looked frustrated, dejected, almost bored, as if he’d rather be anywhere else. I didn’t mind that. I would rather he was anywhere else too.
What Leeds United need to do at the moment, from a football point of view, is a lot and as quickly as possible. For months watching Leeds has been like forcing down a stale but never ending pint of pure hangover, but after finally reaching the bottom of the glass after the QPR game, we’ve still not been allowed to leave the bar. Instead we’re being force fed a chaser of rotting pub carpet tiles, the old chewing gum tangled in the fibres sticking to our teeth the way this season is sticking to our lives. We want to wash 2017/18 right out of our hair, so we look salon fresh and splendid for when Kyle Bartley comes round for tea. Instead we’ll be drenched in sweat on the other side of the world when he knocks round and so, most importantly, will Luke Ayling.
Perhaps not much can be done while the play-offs are yet to be played and various European leagues, including the Premier League, are still to conclude. But Pawel Cibicki is in Warsaw, lining up a move to Legia. Mateusz Klich is talking to the press about his future. Nigel Clough wants to talk to Paul Heckingbottom about Luke Murphy, although he wants to say Murphy should be playing for Leeds next season: yeah, thanks Nigel, when we need advice from a Clough we’ll ask for it. Then there’s Bartley and McBurnie and whoever else, and before we even get to that, the “difficult conversations” Heckingbottom has been saying everyone will have at the end of the season. At least some of those, he has also said, will have to wait until he’s back from Myanmar.
Some conversations might be had in the hotel in Yangon, apart from the one where he got told to stop saying the trip is not about football. It’s possible, because everyone is there. Andrea Radrizzani, the chairman; Angus Kinnear, the chief executive; Victor Orta, the director of football; James Mooney, the head of media; the only senior executive I haven’t spotted in the various photographs and videos is Paul Bell, the executive director in charge of commercial operations, but I imagine he’s there, as someone had to give Samu Saiz the shirts he was throwing into the crowd after the first match. That is essentially Leeds United’s entire senior executive team, and while I’m sure someone has been left at Elland Road to answer the phones, they can only really answer: “He’s not in Mr Clough. No, him neither. Nor him. You could try their mobiles, but I’m not sure…”
This is partly a matter of appearances. After losing in the play-offs, Brighton famously tweeted a photo of the next day’s board meeting, that they declared the first of the new season. That new season ended with promotion. When Radrizzani arrived at Leeds, he said Brighton’s was the model he wanted to emulate; perhaps now he’s been seduced by the Wolves model, he’s forgotten all that was good about what Brighton did. After the season Leeds United have just had, leaving Elland Road empty for a week while everybody goes to Myanmar perpetuates the message that Leeds don’t know how to plan for promotion, the opposite of Brighton’s focus on their aim in 2016, and the opposite of what we need to see from Leeds.
Of course, this is 2018, electronics have shrunk the world, and the news this week that Radrizzani is selling a minority stake in the club proves that business can be transacted on the move. Perhaps it helps if you’re on the move near to where your new investor is located and have your senior executive team with you, but that’s pure speculation at this stage.
“We are not making any money out of this game,” Radrizzani told the BBC’s Nick Beake in Myanmar, who pressed the point that Radrizzani has other business ventures in the country. “Well yeah, but with other companies, of course I have different interests. I have a good relationship with the president of the federation, and we are starting a project for different years on the football pitch as well as on the media. And we are happy to visit our friends. Anything else is nothing related to here, because I’m not a politician and I just do football. We play two games and we leave.”
This is the kind of football Heckingbottom was not talking about: the kickabout with friends in the park, part of Radrizzani’s insistence that football is a pure game that can bring people together to be friends without any need for politicians to be involved. Some Leeds United players did take a coaching session for some young orphans in Yangon, bringing genuine joy to kids without politics interfering. Well, except that Radrizzani was there with the British Ambassador to Myanmar, who as the representative of the UK government is certainly a political figure. The session, like the previous day’s visit to the Golden Pagoda, was filmed and presented on United’s social media channels with a level of slickness we’re not used to from LUTV; Radrizzani might only be there visiting friends, but he’s acting like the kid who hires a film crew for his prom night. Emma Louise Jones and Bobby Davison aren’t being allowed to interfere with the messaging on this trip.
Are they not Radrizzani’s friends anymore? I guess that’s the problem with saying “I just do football” in 2018. You can’t say you “just do football” while turning a £9m loan into equity to prepare for multi-million pound investment, shaking hands with local ambassadors, posing for photographs with bank-owning billionaires, filming the whole thing for an international audience, while wearing shirts emblazoned with the name of a bank. That is basically what football is in 2018, and Radrizzani doesn’t do the naive corinthian act very well.
Radrizzani wants the focus of the trip to be the spectacle in the Thuwunna Stadium where the first game was played, in front of a large crowd that was glad to see a team from England for the first time. But even there the football didn’t look like the focus. Before the game the pitch filled with children in ceremonial costume bearing gifts of flowers, then Radrizzani arrived with Zaw Zaw, his billionaire pal, wearing costumes of their own, Zaw Zaw in a Leeds United shirt, Radrizzani in a Myanmar national team shirt, flanked by yet more children, all wearing AYA Bank Tour t-shirts. There were big smiles from everybody, and that photo will look lovely on Zaw Zaw’s wall at AYA Bank HQ, a reminder of when he and his good friend Andrea had no time to talk about their other business projects, because he’d brought some mates over for a kickabout, for a laugh.
Or rather, for the joy, the sheer joy of football for the fans who come to watch. Aye, well. Maybe Leeds United will get round to that once they’re back from Myanmar. Unless they’re off somewhere else soon; I guess the privilege of owning a football club is you can take it wherever you like, to show it off to whoever you want, to bring the joy to wherever it will be most profitable. Sorry, socially beneficial. Then again, when you no longer own all of it, you might find you no longer have as much of a say. That’s a feeling the fans know only too well. ◉
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