Leeds United owner Andrea Radrizzani on Wednesday defended the English club’s controversial tour of Myanmar after criticism from politicians and Amnesty International, saying it could have a “positive impact.”
The club, who play in England’s second tier, the Championship, have been urged to scrap the planned trip, branded “morally corrupt” by the opposition Labour Party’s shadow sports minister Rosena Allin-Khan.
Leeds are due to play two friendlies as they look to build a fanbase in the troubled Southeast Asian country.
Myanmar is in the eye of a storm of criticism over its treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority, around 700,000 of whom have been driven into Bangladesh since August last year in what the UN says amounts to “ethnic cleansing.”
But writing in an open letter to fans, Radrizzani said he had visited the country many times and that it was “somewhere very close to my heart.”
“The club is not receiving any fee to play,” he added. “Rather I see this both as a personal initiative to support local football and a way to introduce the name of Leeds United in the fastest-growing country in Southeast Asia.
“I believe the tour will have a positive impact on the local community in parts of the country we intend to visit. This was a carefully considered decision and we knew it would be controversial, but this is about people not governments.
“It has never been my intention, nor that of the club, to get involved in a political debate in Myanmar. However, if because of the tour we further highlight the ongoing serious issues in certain areas of the country, then maybe that is a positive thing.”
Amnesty International criticized the move on Tuesday.
“It certainly seems like an odd choice of country to choose to tour,” said its UK director Kate Allen. “The Myanmar authorities have continued the brutal crackdown despite a global outcry.
“Far too often sporting events have been used as a cheap PR tool to ‘sportswash’ the stain of a country’s human rights record.”
Leeds were relegated from the English Premier League in 2004 and suffered years of financial woes.
The club have since struggled to gain promotion back to the top flight.