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English soccer club Leeds United defends its decision to tour Myanmar

  • Leeds United, who play in the Championship, English football's second tier, scheduled two fixtures which will be on May 9 and 11.
  • The tour is to be sponsored by ASER, the sports investment company of the club's Italian owner Andrea Radrizzani. It's in partnership with Myanmar bank AYA and is seen by the club as a way of expanding its global reach.
  • However, the region remains a place of ongoing tensions and military action.
Caleb Ekuban of Leeds reacts to Aston Villa's first goal during the Sky Bet Championship match between Aston Villa and Leeds United at Villa Park on April 13, 2018 in Birmingham, England
Michael Regan | Getty Images
Caleb Ekuban of Leeds reacts to Aston Villa's first goal during the Sky Bet Championship match between Aston Villa and Leeds United at Villa Park on April 13, 2018 in Birmingham, England

An English soccer team announced plans for a two match post season tour to Myanmar, despite safety concerns in the country.

Leeds United, who play in the Championship, English football's second tier, scheduled two fixtures which will be on May 9 and 11 against a Myanmar National League All-Star team in Yangon, also known as Rangoon, and the country's national team in Mandalay.

The tour is to be sponsored by ASER, the sports investment company of the club's Italian owner Andrea Radrizzani. It's in partnership with Myanmar bank AYA and is seen by the club as a way of expanding its global reach.

However, the region remains a place of ongoing tensions and military action following the displacement of more than 700,000 of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim community since last August. The current advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is to avoid "all but essential travel," with Leeds itself asking fans to await further information before arranging travel.

Leeds has been the champions of English soccer three times, but hasn't been in the Premier League since its relegation back in 2004. In that time it has gone through several team managers and owners, before Radrizzani invested over £100 million ($139 million) and completed a 100 percent takeover of the club last summer, which included purchasing its Elland Road stadium.

Some have questioned the decision to take the team to Myanmar, also known as Burma, because of the problems in the region. The United Nations has accused the state of undergoing a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."

Amnesty International's International U.K. Director Kate Allen said in a statement "Far too often sporting events have been used as a cheap PR tool to 'sportswash' the stain of a country's human rights record."

The Leeds owner took to his social media account to react to fan criticism, where it was suggested the tour was potentially motivated by his own personal interests. Radrizzani has involvement in several sport enterprises in Southeast Asia, including television network Eleven Sports.

He responded by saying "Such a stupid thought! It's actually the opposite, football bring joy and has no politics. I am happy to go in developing countries and support local football and engage with local community." He went on to say the club is not receiving any fee to play the matches.

Club Managing Director Angus Kinnear has also been justifying the trip on the Leeds official website "Myanmar is one of the fastest growing nations in Southeast Asia and is passionate about English football. They have ambitious goals for grassroots and elite football development that we are delighted to be able to support."

In addition to the matches, the players will run football clinics with the Myanmar Football Federation Academies and schedule visits to several cultural sites in the country.

These types of post-season tours have become more commonplace in recent years and are seen as a way to maximize commercial opportunities away from their domestic fan base.

Leeds is a club which already has a large support base around the world and still considers itself a club of Premier League stature, despite not being in the top division for 14 years. It is set for a mid-table finish this season with two games of the Championship to go, but given the controversial nature of its post-season plans, it'll be hoping it'll be worth the extra effort.