Mandalay (Myanmar) (AFP) – Leeds United beat Myanmar’s national side 2-0 on Friday, ending on a positive footballing note after a controversial visit to the Southeast Asian country facing criticism over its treatment of the Rohingya minority.
The English Championship football side went into the hot and rainy evening looking to wrap up their friendly matches in Myanmar with a victory after losing 2-1 to an All-Star team on Wednesday in Yangon.
After a scoreless first half at the Mandalar Thiri stadium, Ryan Edmondson helped Leeds take the lead in the 59th minute by tapping in a shot that deflected out of the reach of the Myanmar keeper.
Jay-Roy Grot scored the second with seven minutes left.
The stadium was packed with tens of thousands of mostly Myanmar fans who chanted the name of the country while also cheering for Leeds.
The trip comes at a time when Myanmar stands accused of driving out some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims in a campaign the UN and the US have called ethnic cleansing.
Myanmar rejects the allegations and says it was defending itself against deadly militant attacks on police posts in August.
Leeds’ Italian tycoon owner Andrea Radrizzani has been unapologetic about the end-of-season visit, arguing that “we’re not politicians”.
After the match in Mandalay, head coach Paul Heckingbottom echoed Radrizzani’s remarks when asked if he regretted coming to Myanmar given all the criticism.
“It is about football, making friends, and we enjoyed the experience,” he told AFP.
Fans who attended the match lauded the club for coming.
“Leeds is a famous team and we feel proud as they are playing here now,” said Nyi Soe, a 22-year-old fan from Mandalay.
“We heard about it (the criticism) but they came here as they respected football and we respect them.”
The controversy over the decision to play in Myanmar occurred mostly outside the country, generating little to no opposition inside its borders, where the Rohingya are seen as outsiders from Bangladesh.
Zaw Min Htike, a spokesman for the Myanmar Football Federation, thanked the fans before the match for “bringing peace and lovely cheers”.
“It shows Myanmar football fans love the sport, not giving any account to any political tension. This is very graceful for our image of football.”
The sentiment was not limited to local residents.
“As football fans we care about watching football and if it brings a little happiness to some of the local people then so be it,” said Leeds supporter Roy Schofield, 67.
“It’s the government and the United Nations that need to sort out the political situation.”
This is not the first time sports and politics have clashed in Myanmar over the Rohingya crisis.
In January, Bangladeshi golfer Siddikur Rahman pulled out of the Myanmar Open, citing his support for refugees who fled mainly Buddhist Myanmar.