Grass­roots goal for faded gi­ant Wide-rang­ing in­vest­ment aims to re­store Myan­mar as soc­cer power

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD - By AGENCE FRANCEPRESSE in Yan­gon

Shouts re­ver­ber­ate un­der the con­crete over­pass as bare­foot play­ers jos­tle for the ball, a sad echo of Myan­mar’s long-lost foot­balling glory days which au­thor­i­ties are now hop­ing to re­vive.

Myan­mar used to be a soc­cer pow­er­house in the re­gion, win­ning the 1966 and 1970 Asian Games and be­ing crowned South­east Asian cham­pi­ons five times in a row. But they are now wal­low­ing at 159th in the FIFA rank­ings, much to the dis­may of their long-suf­fer­ing fans.

Ye Aung Oo, who plays un­der the Yan­gon over­pass ev­ery night, says he hopes at­tempts to stim­u­late foot­ball at the grass­roots level will help turn Myan­mar’s pas­sion into prow­ess on the pitch.

“I have loved play­ing foot­ball since I was young and I wanted to play pro­fes­sion­ally,” said the 20-year-old com­puter tech­ni­cian.

He ad­mits that the na­tional team “needs a lot” of work, but adds: “I hope that with time we will be suc­cess­ful, now that more sup­port is be­ing de­vel­oped.”

Hopes of a re­birth are now grow­ing with FIFA pres­i­dent Gianni In­fantino set to open a new academy in Yan­gon on Fri­day, part of a push to rein­vig­o­rate grass­roots foot­ball.

The British Coun­cil has also brought in ex­perts from English Premier League clubs in­clud­ing Arse­nal, New­cas­tle United and Ever­ton to teach dozens of coaches.

The Myan­mar Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion is train­ing 50 young play­ers to take part in the ASEAN un­der-18 com­pe­ti­tion to be held Septem­ber, and an­other pan-Asian com­pe­ti­tion the fol­low­ing month.

And the body is ex­tend­ing its scout­ing net­work to 52 towns and cities to find more young tal­ent for its acad­e­mies.

“Most in­ter­na­tional foot­ball fed­er­a­tion can ac­cess very tal­ented play­ers eas­ily” from do­mes­tic clubs, ex­plained chief ex­ec­u­tive Phone Naing Zaw.

But in Myan­mar, “the MFF has to dig to the grass­roots, open foot­ball train­ing classes and run acad­e­mies. This is very dif­fer­ent.”

Myan­mar’s “golden age” of the 1960s and 70s, which also in­cluded a berth at the 1972 Mu­nich Olympics, still evokes nostal­gia among fans and play­ers.

“We were very good at foot­ball at that time and went to (South) Korea,” said 71-year-old for­mer de­fender Myo Win Nyunt, de­scrib­ing the 1972 Pres­i­dent’s Cup.

“We beat them at home and be­came the cham­pi­ons. That was my great­est mem­ory as we did it for our coun­try.”

But the glory of Myan­mar’s na­tional team, the White An­gels, faded amid eco­nomic de­cline.

To­day Myan­mar’s Na­tional League still in­spires fierce ri­val­ries, and even oc­ca­sional hooli­gan­ism, but matches rarely draw big crowds.

Foot­ball fans are more likely to be found watch­ing Arse­nal or Chelsea in a street cor­ner beer sta­tion than at­tend­ing do­mes­tic matches, or play­ing them­selves.

Many blame the dearth of green spa­ces in cities like Yan­gon, which have been eaten up by hous­ing de­vel­op­ments that have mush­roomed as the econ­omy fires back to life as Myan­mar re­opens to the out­side world.

Oth­ers be­moan a lack of sport in schools, aca­demic pres­sure on stu­dents, and a short­age of well-qual­i­fied scouts to seek out new tal­ent.

“Stu­dents have to have ex­tra tu­ition be­fore school and again af­ter school, so they have no time to go to the foot­ball pitch,” said sports jour­nal­ist Sein Myo Myint.

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