International relations, Arts, culture & society | The World, Asia, Southeast Asia

29 April 2018

Leeds United are the latest football club to get caught up in the pursuit of a quick buck in far flung destinations, Simon Chadwick writes.

English second-tier football club Leeds United has announced that it will tour Myanmar. Two friendly games have been scheduled for May – one against the country’s national team, another against a National League All-Stars team. Normally, few people would be surprised by such a tour, as post-season warm-downs have become a football staple.

However, this isn’t a normal situation: it is Myanmar, a country engaged in human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing; a nation beset by often violent internal divisions. United’s tour has therefore drawn condemnation, with Britain’s Shadow Sports Minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan even writing to the club’s owners expressing her dismay and anger at their decision.

The club’s owner responded to the widespread outcry by claiming that “It has never been my intention, nor that of the club, to get involved in a political debate in Myanmar; this was a carefully considered decision and we knew it would be controversial, but this is about people not governments.”

This was a response as naïve as it was crass.

One acknowledges the financial pressures associated with running a football club are significant, with ever-inflating costs of player acquisition and retention. This has led many clubs to seek out new, overseas markets in an attempt to boost their revenues. In terms of hard numbers, Myanmar’s economy is rapidly strengthening; last year the economic growth rate was around seven per cent.

More on this: Could Australia help resolve Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis?

However, for a club to visit Myanmar at this point in the country’s history is not a money and numbers issue – it is a very human one. Leeds’ trip therefore suggests that the owner’s decision to tour there is either arrogantly dismissive or else ill-conceived. The latter is worth considering, as football clubs have previously shown themselves to be deficient in addressing the potential ramifications of their decisions.

For instance, last summer, English Premier League club Liverpool signed a sponsorship deal with Tibet Water Resources Limited, which the Indian-based Central Tibetan Administration – also known as the Tibetan Government in Exile – condemned. Tens of thousands of football fans later signed a petition calling for the club to sever ties with the company, which was ignored by the club.

Football clubs are incredibly powerful socio-cultural institutions, whose community work can affect positive behavioural change. However, money increasingly seems to be trumping all else, though this neglects the complex environment in which clubs operate. Indeed, Leeds United demonstrated its ineptness in this regard earlier this year with a botched club badge redesign, from which it eventually had to retrench.

Yet in an era where corporate social responsibility is an important underpinning principle for many businesses, football’s blithe pursuit of new revenues calls into question the judgement, competence, ethics, motives and orientation of those involved in the sport’s management.

Possibly because it was announced in the same week as Leeds’ Myanmar controversy took centre-stage, Qatar Airways’ new shirt sponsorship deal with Italian Serie A Club AS Roma drew far less attention than might normally be the case. This may also have reflected the fact that Roma was playing in the UEFA Champions League, which suggests that ultimately football still transcends the business and politics that often surround it.

Even so, the absence of any perceptible outcry about the deal was surprising. After all, fans of FC Barcelona had previously demonstrated against the airline’s name appearing on club shirts. Indeed, a candidate stood during the its 2015 presidential election on a platform of severing ties with Qatar because of worries about the country’s treatment of migrant labour.

More on this: The military still holds all the levers in Myanmar

More recently, Norwegian football magazine Josimar reported on concerns about workers employed at Hamad International Airport (HIA) in Doha, a facility that is operated by Qatar Airways. In 2017, HIA signed a sponsorship deal with German Bundesliga club Bayern Munich.

Ahead of the deal, both the club and the German government requested advice from Human Rights Watch (HRW) regarding the potential ramifications of the deal.

Although HRW offered detailed guidance, the German club ignored it. A senior club official, in what seemed reminiscent of the Leeds United owner’s current stance, defended the decision by stating, “Generally, we can say that FC Bayern Munich competes in a global market with some of the foremost clubs in Europe. We look after our economic interests, in addition to certain social aspects to the advantage of our club and our team.”

That only ‘certain’ social aspects are important to the club is understandable – a football club can never be a panacea for all ills. However, it does call into question the orientation of football clubs’ moral compasses. Furthermore, it rather suggests that many of them make economically informed moral judgements about the partners and countries with which they choose to be associated.

As an undercurrent to the cases of Leeds, Roma and Munich, one senses that there is something of an ideological battle raging between the liberal western democracies in which clubs are often located, and the authoritarian countries that an increasing number of them are doing business with. In practical terms though, this does raise some important issues for Leeds United (ahead of its Myanmar visit) and other clubs too.

It is insufficient simply for United’s owner to imply that football and politics do not mix. Unfortunately for him, this portrays the club as being out of touch and uncaring. Instead, he needs to acknowledge that football has a responsibility to help shine a spotlight on all manner of problems and that, rather than making the club complicit in Myanmar’s internal struggles, he should be positioning it as being at the forefront of sport for good.

There’s money to be made from being decent and moral; football fans often want their clubs to do the right thing. Yet so long as clubs like Leeds United ignore the realities of their operating environments, then their pursuit of money will be a race to the bottom rather than an ascent to its high ground.

This piece is published in partnership the China Soccer Observatory at the University of Nottingham.

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