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27th Apr 2018

COMMENT: Leeds United’s tour of Myanmar is abhorrent and wrong, and history won’t judge it kindly

Nooruddean Choudry

[Whataboutery disclaimer: Yes, there are other bad places in the world. Yes, there are other bad places in the world that football clubs visit. This isn’t anti-Leeds, and especially isn’t anti-Leeds fans, many of whom are unhappy with the planned tour.] 

When Leeds United tweeted earlier in the week that they were ‘delighted’ to announce a post-season tour of Myanmar, it was one of those ‘Ha!…what, what?‘ moments when you automatically assume it’s a parody account, and then come to slow realisation it’s actually real. The Twitter handle isn’t spelt ‘@1UFC’, and there’s a little verified sign right there.

The decision to partake in the two-game whistle stop visit is of course abhorrent. You can dress it up in any way you like. It’s fucking weird and the kindest thing you can say about it is that it’s stupidly misjudged.

We’ve all seen the devastating images of an estimated 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing their homes in Rakhine state to avoid state sponsored terrorism and military complicity in their mass murder. We’ve read of the many atrocities, such as in Inn Din, where scores of Rohingya men and boys were hacked to death by Buddhist villagers.

Amnesty International calls it ‘genocide’; United Nations refer to it as ‘textbook ethnic cleansing’; the EU note the ‘serious and systemic’ human rights violations. But to Leeds United’s opportunistic owner Andrea Radrizzani, it is a glass half full ‘opportunity’. The fact that the glass in question is filled with Rohingya blood is neither here nor there.

Following near universal condemnation of the planned tour, Radrizzani has penned an open letter to ‘Leeds United supporters and the football community’. In it he stresses that the club ‘is not receiving any fee to play’, whilst at the same time admitting that he has personal business interests in the area, and referring to the marketing boon of introducing ‘the name of Leeds United in the fastest growing country in Southeast Asia’.

Perhaps most cloyingly, he attempts to frame the visit as some sort of altruistic reach-out programme. “I believe the game we all love has the power to help developing nations by bringing people together,” he implores. Continuing his Martin Luther King Jr motif, he adds: “I believe the tour will have a positive impact on the local community.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, Radrizzani seems to suggest that Leeds’ ill-conceived and amoral visit is actually raising awareness of the horrors inflicted upon the Rohingya people with this breathtaking paragraph:

“It has never been my intention, nor that of the club, to get involved in a political debate in Myanmar. However, 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.”

The actual barefaced cheek! It’s like Little Mix going to perform for Bashar al-Assad, getting stick for it, and then saying: ‘Well, it got people talking about Syria, didn’t it?!’

Alas, such disingenuous guff is nothing new. The history of sport and popular culture is littered with examples of performers claiming to be apolitical, and therefore exempt from criticism for tacitly legitimising sinister regimes. Or going that one step further and claiming they’re doing it ‘for the people’. Like they’re being benevolent, rather than callously greedy.

Take the ‘rebel tours’ of apartheid South Africa in the eighties, when groups of renowned cricketers defied international sporting boycotts to make a bit of dirty cash in a racist state where black people were officially second-class citizens.

At least Yorkshire fast bowler Paul Jarvis was honest about his reasons for joining a Mike Gatting led tour in 1990. “To pay off my mortgage in one go…” was his frank explanation. “I have a £66,500 mortgage, a large overdraft at the bank and only a guaranteed income of £10,000 a year from Yorkshire.”

Now you may think what a morally corrupt ****, but at least he’s an honest morally corrupt ****. This is what David Graveney, later to become the chairman of the England Test selectors no less, said of his involvement:

“I do not believe that my playing cricket in South Africa could be construed as a victory for apartheid. On the contrary, I’ll be playing cricket in a system that has been developed by the South African Cricket Union specifically to bring about change and to provide new opportunities for all communities.”

Oh well, isn’t he oh so caring and considerate to the very same persecuted black people who were protesting the tour. For context, the timing was just weeks before Nelson Mandela was released after 27 long years of incarceration. Anti-apartheid campaigners were thusly incensed that the tour was happening at such a pivotal point in the country’s history. As you would.

As for it not being ‘a victory for apartheid’, unlike previous rebel tours, it was fully funded by the apartheid ­government, rather than corporate ­sponsors. So, ya know, it totally was a big thumbs up and chummy hair ruffle to apartheid. Not that Mike Gatting seemed to give a shit. He famously described angry demonstrations as “just a bit of singing and dancing”.

Speaking of which, another infamous trip to racist South Africa came in the shape of a Queen tour in 1984. Less than a year prior to their much-heralded turn at Live Aid, Freddie Mercury and co ignored a musicians’ union ban to scab their way to a money-spinning residency at the Sun City Super Bowl in Bophuthatswana.

“We thought a lot about the morals of it a lot,” said Brian May at the time, “and it is something we’ve decided to do. The band is not political. We play to anybody who wants and come and listen.” Bass player John Deacon added: “We enjoy going to new places. It’s nice to go somewhere different.” Yup, pity black people couldn’t enjoy the same privilege.

Such tepid reasoning shouldn’t really come as a surprise from a band who were once called ‘the first truly fascist rock band’ in a review in Rolling Stone magazine. They had previous, even before Sun City.

That’s because they decided to tour Argentina three years earlier – smack bang in the middle of a brutal military dictatorship. The kind of brutal military dictatorship that used right-wing death squads to kidnap, torture and murder up to 30,000 people, in order to ‘maintain social order and eradicate political subversives’.

In 1984, Queen were interviewed by the Melody Maker about their widely condemned junta jaunt, and their comments make startling reading. When it was put to drummer Roger Taylor that it was perhaps unethical and hypocritical to visit Argentina at this time he was incredulous:

“Bollocks! Come off it! In Argentina we were Number One when that stupid war was going on and we had a fantastic time there and that can only be for the good. Music is totally international…we weren’t playing for the government. We were playing to lots of ordinary Argentinian people.”

Sound familiar? Using ordinary people to justify the legitimisation of a brutal governing power that are killing other ordinary people? Freddie Mercury certainly seems to appreciate the state security laid out for them during their stay:

“There was no such thing as any organisation. It could have turned out to be a totally unruly crowd, so they had the Death Squad doing the security. The heavy, heavy police who actually kill people at the drop of a hat. They were called in to protect us. We were actually taken from one place to another in armoured vehicles that are used for riots. And when the journalists watch that it becomes political.”

Imagine that! The bloody media bringing politics into it!

Queen’s entourage were obviously savvy enough about the situation to bring their own artificial turf to cover up the 6-foot wide moat of foul water that ran around the perimeter of the Estadio José Amalfitani. It was designed to keep dissidents in, rather than pitch invaders out. Still, what a fitting venue to sing ‘Another One Bites the Dust’, eh?!

All this brings us back to Leeds United and Myanmar. As things stand, the tour is still going ahead. Any hopes that common sense and basic decency will surely prevail are fading fast. Many Leeds fans are suitably horrified; some are staunchly behind their owner, and are treating all criticism with ‘no one likes us, we don’t care’ indifference.

If the argument is that other clubs and entities have done similar and gotten away with it, that’s true. This piece is a testament to that. But history doesn’t judge them well. And it’s amazing how so many of the arguments put forward by Radrizzani have echoes of previous excuses and justifications. They don’t tend to age well.

It is a black mark that Leeds United really doesn’t need against its name. There’s plenty of other ways of increasing your profile and swelling your bank balance. It’s really not worth giving kudos to regimes that understand all too well the power of sport and music on the world stage.