When Myanmar’s junta leader ordered the creation of a new soccer league two years ago — apparently after ruling out a bid for Manchester United — he harked back to the country’s glory days.
However, despite a successful start, the nation’s Premier League is struggling to lure supporters who are used to watching -multimillion--dollar players from the big European clubs.
In a half-deserted Yangon stadium recently, a handful of Manaw Myay FC fans — almost outnumbered by armed police — could barely contain their anger at their club’s poor performance.
“Mothers go home!” one fan shouted at his team as they trudged off the pitch after the 7-2 thrashing by Naypyidaw FC.
“In 2009, there were big crowds, now it’s half,” one league club manager who did not want to be named said.
“There are maybe five or 10 good players in Myanmar,” he said, adding that new investment in training facilities and relatively high player salaries would take time to translate into better performance on the pitch.
In addition, most games are played in the capital, far from the home states of many of the new teams.
Poverty, poor transport infrastructure and travel restrictions — imposed after decades of civil war between the government and ethnic minority rebels — mean fans cannot move freely around the country to watch games.
Four decades ago Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was a major soccer force in the region, winning five South East Asian Games between 1965 and 1973.
Since then, the national team has suffered a precipitous decline as the military dictatorship laid waste to the economy.
After almost half a century of military rule, the country is ranked 167th by the world soccer body FIFA, three places below Afghanistan.
“The national team lose every match, they are not interesting ... Even in 10 years, we will not be the same level as in the past,” said the manager, who has worked in the game for 20 years.
Andrew Marshall, author of The Trouser People, a book about politics and soccer in Myanmar, said the country did well before because “it didn’t have this poverty, this great weight of being a dictatorship on its shoulders.”
Across society, “the best people don’t rise to the top because it’s a corrupt and inequitable system,” he said.
“I do see football as being quite symbolic of a country where they have an enormous amount of talent, usefulness that is never harnessed,” he said.
Several clubs are controlled by notorious regime cronies targeted by Western sanctions, including Yangon United owner and alleged arms dealer Tay Za and Magway’s Steven Law, who is accused of links to drug trafficking.
The taint of corruption has cast a shadow over FIFA’s efforts to provide training that would bridge the gap between the vibrant grassroots game and the professional sport.
Following a visit by FIFA -president Sepp Blatter in March, the organization had to fend off allegations that it breached sanctions rules by paying grants through a banned company.
The soccer body, currently facing a slew of unrelated corruption scandals, has denied the claims.
Myanmar’s league was the -brainchild of senior general Than Shwe, who held the impoverished country in an iron grip until controversial elections heralded the arrival of a nominally civilian parliament in March.
It was the next best thing to buying his favorite team — Manchester United — after he decided a billion US dollar bid for the English club “could look bad,” according to leaked US diplomatic notes from June 2009.
Unfettered by transparency requirements, the junta leader simply ordered a group of cronies and businessmen to found — and fund — the professional soccer teams, possibly to distract attention from the country’s political and economic problems, the US cable said.
Businessmen were said to have been lured by incentives from the regime, including construction contracts, new gem and jade mines and the opportunity to use club sponsorship as a platform to advertise their companies.
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