Soccer Diplomacy in Singapore’s ‘Little Burma’

SINGAPORE — A goal kick away from the Toa Payoh Stadium are reminders of the once-close ties between Myanmar and this Singapore neighborhood, home to the Burmese Buddhist Temple and streets named for the towns and rivers of the Golden Land.

The arena hosts Balestier Khalsa Football Club, of Singapore’s professional soccer league, and sits in the middle of a community which arrived from the country then known as Burma in the 1940s and 1950s.

Many inhabitants have since moved on, but the area recently welcomed three new residents from Myanmar. Soccer players Aung Kyaw Naing, Kyaw Zayar Win and Nanda Lin Kyaw Chit signed for Balestier in February to play in Singapore’s top-tier domestic competition, known as the S-League.

For the club, this move is not about returning to days gone by, but the future of soccer for Balestier, Singapore and Myanmar — and perhaps more besides.

“We are looking at the bigger picture beyond football,” said Balestier chairman Thavaneson Selvaratnam. “The government and private sector in Singapore are already heavily involved with investment in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand, and it only makes sense that they want to look at the next big economy that is growing at a fast pace.”

That “next big economy” is Myanmar, which just five years ago was floundering amid stalled growth and international sanctions. Now, according to a World Bank report in December, the country can expect gross domestic product to grow by an average of 7.1% annually over the next three years.

In the competitive world of Asian professional soccer, Myanmar’s reputation is also on the rise. In 2015, it was one of just four Asian nations to send a team to the Under-20 World Cup, a source of great pride and cause for celebration among local fans. That team provided a number of players for the senior team in the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup, a biennial tournament held between Southeast Asian nations.

It was co-hosted for the first time in Myanmar, and a young local team reached the last four games, beating 2012 champion Malaysia along the way. Their run was stopped in the semifinal by Thailand, the region’s standout team, which went on to win a record fifth title. It was, overall, an impressive performance by Myanmar that was cheered on by passionate fans. Players such as forward Aung Thu and defender Zaw Min Tun were just two of the stars.

Now, with the 2019 Asian Cup expanding from 16 to 24 teams for the first time, there is a real chance for Myanmar to qualify for the first time in the top regional competition. Myanmar’s national team kicks off at home, against India, in the first game of the final round of qualification on March 28. Games against Kyrgyzstan and Macau will follow with the top two from the group going to the tournament.

“The talent is there in the country, almost as much as the passion, but it has taken time to show it,” said Radojko Avramkovic, who took over the Myanmar national team as head coach in 2014 after almost a decade in charge of Singapore. “Unlike in Singapore, you see people playing on the streets. There is now more organization and more contact with the outside world. There is a lot of potential in Myanmar.”

The Myanmar National League started in 2009 and now contains 12 professional clubs from across the country, funded by the private sector. Through the judicious use of grants from world governing body FIFA and private benefactors, the Myanmar Football Federation opened youth academies all over the country and set funds aside for coaching education.

Sending players overseas to compete in better leagues and gain more international experience is also an important step in a country’s soccer development. For Myanmar, it was difficult to do so under the former military government, which seized power in 1962 and maintained tight control for decades. The country has started to open up in recent years, and a 2015 general election resulted in a sweeping victory for opposition National League for Democracy and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

“For a long time, there was a lock-down on movement abroad,” said Thavaneson, adding that in the past any attempt to sign Myanmar players had to be approved at cabinet level. “Myanmar people were fearful to go out of the country but that is changing.”

There is still trepidation among many players, according to Aung Naing Soe, a football journalist and consultant in Yangon. “Players in Myanmar all want to go to Europe,” he said. “But they all want to be surrounded by other people from Myanmar and that makes it difficult. Singapore is a good destination as there is a community already there.”

It was also one reason why Balestier’s three latest signings were attractive to the club. “We felt that three from the same country made more sense economically and in terms of football,” said Thavaneson. “The players share a large private condo nearby, they can cook at home and chat.”

Balestier is hoping that fans from Myanmar, wherever they live, will become interested in the S-League. Singapore may have a longer-running professional league but Myanmar’s population of around 54 to 55 million people is 10 times larger.

“All our S-League matches will be live-streamed, so fans in Myanmar can watch,” said Thavaneson. “We will do it on Facebook and our players will spread the word and their friends and family can watch too.”

He is hopeful that more fans will come to games to support the trio at Balestier, noting the many Myanmar nationals living and working in Singapore.

Thavaneson also wants to show Singaporeans the benefits of moving overseas. “Our Singapore players must get themselves out of this comfort zone, and this applies to non-footballers too. Workers are generally reluctant to go on overseas postings.” In his view, a big inspiration on that front will come in the form of the three new arrivals from Myanmar.

With pressure on and off the field for the Myanmar players, they are nonetheless looking forward to the challenge.

“Now we are here and excited. The level here is higher than home,” said Nanda Lin Kyaw Chit. “Every player has a dream of playing in Europe but here, we just want to do well. Maybe more can follow and that will be good, not just for Myanmar football but for Myanmar.”


Source: Nikkei Asian Review

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