Last week, I linked to a story by the Wall Street Journal’s Jeff Opdyke about Stephen Constantine, a British-born coach who specializes in turning around benighted national soccer programs in blighted nations. It didn’t occur to me that Opdyke’s piece might’ve been part of a WSJ series on soccer in the worst nations on earth, but the arrival today of an un-bylined piece in the Journal about soccer in Myanmar makes me wonder if it is. It’s a good idea for a series, either way.
The article, credited to “A WSJ Staff Reporter,” details the scene at a soccer game in Yangon, Myanmar. Myanmar is pretty far down there in both the UN Development and FIFA rankings. The article works very well as a vivid look at the persistence of this particular pastime even in flat-broke, super-repressive, ultra-nutty — that is: governed by totally unaccountable astrology-obsessed generals — nations, but the thing that’s most interesting to me in the story actually only barely gets mentioned. That’s the presence of international players in Burma’s league.
With salaries topping out at $1,000 a week, it wouldn’t seem worth it to play soccer in one of the saddest and most profoundly effed-up countries out there. Not to belabor the point, but this is a failed state so failed that it’s not even clear what its (now-discredited) ideology of choice is — there’s presumably something Marxist going on there, but the impression I got after reading George Packer’s terrific story on the country in last August’s New Yorker is that there isn’t really anything at all guiding or governing the military junta’s decisions besides an all-encompassing urge to repress and the aforementioned astrology obsession. The government buys arms from North Korea and helps other nations do the same; the generals let citizens die after last year’s typhoons because they didn’t want to admit NGOs or health organizations — it’s that awesomely awful a place. And yet the author mentions that there are Argentines and Cameroonians and Ivoirians playing in the league, and even interviews a few. At the risk of taking anything away from a very interesting piece that obviously took a lot of balls to research and write, I want to know about those guys. Even without that, though, it’s definitely worth a read. Here’s a taste:
As Myanmar’s economy sank under international sanctions and the military’s neglect, the country’s soccer prowess waned. By the 1990s, the national team was often a source of embarrassment, and in 2000, it abruptly withdrew from qualifying matches for the World Cup 2002 — a retreat for which it offered no explanation at the time. International soccer authorities then disqualified the team from the 2006 Cup as well.
As the national team fizzled, fans had to settle for amateur league games played by squads linked to government departments, with names such as “Central Supply and Transport Depot” and “Forestry.”
The new league aims to change that. In an email, Ko Soe Moe, a spokesman for the Myanmar Football Federation, said the league was created because “Myanmar football needs to change to professional to get more achievements in international competitions.” He also said the league wants “to “create entertainment for local fans.”
…Much of the action is slow, and daily downpours, common in Yangon this time of year, turn many games into mudfests. But there are also moments of drama and skill. “Football in this manner could only be seen before” in European leagues, said Soe Moe, a furniture salesman who attends matches.