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26 Apr 2018

Leeds United: Myanmar tour yet another PR nightmare

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'What is it this time?'

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What's the issue?

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Why are Leeds going there?

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What has been the reaction?

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One thing after another

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Repairable damage?

(Photo credit: Jake)

As far as head-in-hands, facepalm seasons go, few could rival Leeds United's 2017/18 campaign.

It was a season that started so well, so positively, but has since spiralled into a period of confusion, misery and sheer disbelief on far too many occasions. 

In the latest episode of what is fast becoming football's biggest soap opera, the Elland Road club announced on Tuesday a post-season tour to the South-East Asian country of Myanmar. 

In what can only be described as a bizarre decision, the West Yorkshire club was once again facing a social media backlash, as fans, journalists and politicians turned their attention to the club's owner, Andrea Radrizzani - a man whose much-welcomed appointment could well be turning sour. 

'What is it this time?'

Leeds United are in the digital and printed press, again, for the wrong reasons, again.

After a tumultuous season both on and off the pitch, which has included, but not been limited to, questionable managerial appointments, a failed recruitment process and the 'worst ever' suggestion of a club's new badge, Leeds have upped their own ante by deciding to send the squad to Myanmar (also known as Burma) for two post-season friendlies.

The announcement was met with immediate questions, backlash and fury. Fans, journalists and even politicians were quick to raise their concerns over the decision, as Radrizzani and his team prepared for another storm.

The club intends to play twice in the trouble-hit nation, once on May 9th against a domestic league All-Star side, and then again against the Myanmar national team two days later. 

Leeds finish their Championship season at home to QPR on May 6th, meaning the players won't have much of a turnaround before jetting off.

What's the issue?

Without turning this piece into an attempt at a history lesson with a sprinkle of current affairs, there are fundamental, political issues happening in the country which have labelled the decision to visit at the present, sensitive time as 'wrong'.

Myanmar was under British rule until 1948 and has been under a military rule since gaining its independence. In 2015, elections were formally held and Aung San Suu Kyi - the leader of the Opposition National League for Democracy - won a majority government. 

The country is predominantly of Buddhist faith but the recent trouble has been thought to be racially and culturally driven. It's this issue, and the continuing fallout from it, which has brought more than a skeptical view over Leeds' decision.

The Muslim Rohingya community, whose people represent the largest Muslim population in the country, called the south-western Rakhine state their home. 

The current crisis began in August of last year but the issues have been prevalent before then. The Rohingya have been disregarded as a people by the national government and weren't included in the 2014 national census.

For the last several years, Muslim Rohingya have been forced into fleeing the country after being persecuted by the country's current security forces. 

It has resulted in over one million Rohingya becoming refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh with many failing to complete such a perilous journey. 

It is described as the world's fastest-growing refugee crisis and has been dubbed as a 'perfect modern day example of ethnic cleansing'.

Myanmar is also a well-known area for heightened risk of exposure to the Zika virus - a virus that can be passed on to children during pregnancy which can lead to birth defects.

Back in 2014, the Zika virus threatened to play havoc with the FIFA World Cup and Olympics in Brazil.

There is much more history and turmoil underneath the surface, but it's these recent developments that have brought Radrizzani's decision into the spotlight. 

Why are Leeds going there?

Radrizzani's fortune has been amassed through the years in sports media and marketing. 

The Italian claims to have business interests in the far-reaches of the continent, and with the bigger, more established countries in the region already massively influenced by the Premier League and Europe's top clubs, Radrizzani sees Myanmar as 'untouched' football territory.

The club believes that football is popular in the area and with top clubs having such a grasp on the Asian market; ask yourself whether there's a reason that Myanmar hasn't yet been 'claimed'.

As well as the two friendlies, Leeds also intend to host coaching sessions and clinics for children in the area to grow the game and following in the area. There's no disputing the good intentions behind this part but the practicality and motive behind the decision has to be questioned.

Radrizzani insists the decision to go has nothing to do with the current political situation but adds that if the tour can help shed further light on the crisis, then it is a win-win scenario - a somewhat contradictory statement.

The club has said that there will be no fee received for the trip from the Myanmar government, nor from the national football association.

Radrizzani and club managing director Angus Kinnear have both stated that they, and the club, are familiar with the issues but that the tour will be separate from the affected areas, and that it should be seen as a positive move. 

What has been the reaction?

Rather unsurprisingly, most of social media reacted negatively to the announcement.

Twitter has seen Leeds United, and the LUFC hashtag trending over the past 24 hours and not for the first time this year. 

Some have sided with the club and supported the decision while others have sat on the fence and been unperturbed by the latest PR fiasco.

The underlying message from those that support the decision in retort to those opposing, seems to revert back to the same few points: Will you be watching the World Cup in Russia? What about in Qatar? Leicester City went to Myanmar...

While all those points and rhetorics are valid, it doesn't mean that two - or in this case, three - wrongs make a right. Using Russia's World Cup hosting as an argument to support the decision for Leeds to go to Myanmar shouldn't stand up. 

UK Shadow Sports Minister, Rosena Allin-Khan condemned Radrizzani and the club's decision to visit the country, labelling it "morally corrupt".

A Scandinavian supporters group have also called on the club to rethink the decision, stating that going ahead with the tour will ruin the club's reputation and standing - and they have a point. 

As good as Radrizzani's intentions maybe, even if they are business driven, attempts to drum up awareness and fans in a country going through such a crisis can and will only be seen in a negative light by most. 

Myanmar ranks 75th in the world in terms of its economy size by GDP and, with other factors such as the country's high poverty rate, one has to question how much exactly Radrizzani hopes to gain from such a risk. 

Is the threat of tarnishing the club's name, being associated with supporting a government accused of ethnic cleansing worth it? If 'money talks' was ever used in football...

One thing after another

For fans of Leeds United, this season can't end quick enough. 

Both on and off the pitch it's been a season to forget after such a bright, promising start. Leeds were within touching distance of last season's Championship play-offs, but a collapse in the run-in saw them drop away at the last. 

With the potential to build on the foundations that were laid, Leeds were boosted by the Italian's full takeover and the optimism he brought with him. As it has turned out, things couldn't have gone much worse.

Things slowly went south after then-manager Thomas Christiansen - who made the best start of any Leeds manager in history - saw his side lose eight in 11 games before Christmas. 

After a mini-revival, Leeds then went winless in six matches, and a 4-1 thumping at home to Cardiff saw the Dane dismissed on February 4th. 

The timing of the abysmal performances couldn't have come at a worse time: Radrizzani and the Leeds board announced the final design of the club's new badge only days before Christiansen's departure.

In what will almost certainly go down as one of the worst ever attempts to redesign a club crest, the unveiling was met with a ferocious response from not only Leeds' fans, but fans and social media accounts of other teams.

A petition to get the club to retract the design was set up within minutes of the release and reached signatures into the tens of thousands within hours; the club claiming to have decided on the design by virtue of feedback from 10,000 fans.

Despite the club listening to the calls and retracting the release, the damage was already done. The badge put a strong emphasis on the 'Leeds Salute', a long-standing traditional gesture made between fans in a subtle manner. 

The new regime at the club assumed, rather arrogantly, they had already conquered the emotions and feelings of Leeds fans, and what it meant to 'be Leeds', and that implementing this tradition would please the masses - how wrong they were.

In amongst the media storm, the small matter of a new manager had to be resolved.

Once again, bookmakers were setting up the next manager markets - which nowadays is surely ready to go at the push of a button. 

However, once again the United board elected to appoint a dark horse, Paul Heckingbottom... despite the former Barnsley boss openly declaring his dislike for Leeds United, and winning only six of his previous sides' 30 league games.

Repairable damage?

The latest debacle has unquestionably brought another PR barrage to Radrizzani's door that is surely unwanted - or is it?

So strange are the recent decisions to come from the Leeds board that fans have questioned whether these acts are deliberate to generate publicity, and that they're not exactly thought and believed to be 'good ideas'.

The validity behind these bizarre press exposures, only Radrizzani and the board know. However, this latest eyebrow-raiser is undoubtably the riskiest yet. 

It appears the club is adamant the tour to Myanmar will go ahead, and only after the outcome will we be able to appropriately judge the success - or failure - of the move. 

It's been a real baptism of fire this season for Radrizzani, and one he didn't see coming. The weight and magnitude of the scrutiny owning any English football club is huge, none less so at Leeds; he's underestimated it.

There is a lot to be learned from his first near-12 months at the helm. But on the evidence of this season's returns, fans will be watching his every move from now on with a microscope and a pair of tweezers. 

What do you think? Should Leeds cancel their tour to Myanmar? Let us know your thoughts by commenting below.