Friday, April 3, 2020

Did you know there was a golden age of Myanmar soccer?

In 1967, at the height of the Cold War, when tensions between Burma and the United States were at an all-time high, an American soccer team arrived in Yangon.

The Dallas Tornados were the brain-child of Texas businessman Lamar Hunt, the man who devised the Super Bowl. He had seen the 1966 World Cup Final between England and West Germany and been blown away.

Now he wanted a soccer team of his own and, in order to sell the sport to American audiences, he cooked up the idea of the first soccer “world tour”.

Dallas Tornados vs. Aung San Selected Penant (Source: UNT Library).

The Tornados played 45 matches in 20 countries, from Spain to Tahiti, and Burma was included on the final leg of the tour.

There was only one hitch — the Burmese government at the time was refusing visas to all Americans.

But, in the Tornados, they must have seen an opportunity to conduct a bit of informal diplomacy, because, when the team arrived in Yangon without visas, they were welcomed with open arms and given the VIP treatment in a country where soccer was king.

Indeed, by the time the Tornados stepped off the plane, soccer had already been the de facto national sport of Myanmar for some 80 years.

The game was first introduced by the British colonialist and explorer James George Scott in the 1880s. Scott organized the country’s first match, between the British (the “trousers”) and the Burmese (the “pasos”) while he was headmaster at St. John’s College (now BEHS 1 Landmadaw).

Fast forward to the turn of the century and soccer was being played on the back-streets of Yangon, in the barracks of the British Indian army, and in the city’s many missionary schools.

It is probable that the game was so quickly accepted in Myanmar because it bore a striking resemblance to chin-lone, which is played with a wicker ball using one’s feet to keep the ball in the air.

“The popularity of football throughout Burma, amongst Burmese as well as amongst Europeans, is very great,” wrote one British writer in 1910.

By 1920, Burmese players were even spreading the gospel of soccer to the rest of Asia.

One such missionary of the sport was U Kyaw Din. Kyaw Din was born in Burma in 1900, but moved to Japan and began coaching Japanese high-school and university teams in the 1920s.

U Kyaw Din (left) with Japanese manager Suzuki (Source: Japan Soccer Archive).

His introduction of short passing techniques improved the quality of Japanese soccer overall, and he was inducted into the Japan Football Hall of Fame posthumously in 2007. He even published a textbook on the subject, “How to Play Association Football”.

His textbook was likely devoured by students at the University of Yangon, which would later become a breeding ground for many of the nation’s greatest players (these included the movie actor, Collegian Ne Win, who played as a forward for the university team in the early ‘50s and would go on to play on the national team in 1955).

After independence in 1948, Burmese players who wanted to continue playing after university joined the teams of the various government ministries, e.g. construction, customs, or the ministry of defense. From these teams, the final roster for the national team was selected.

But there were other routes to the top. In 1952, the Myanmar Football Federation launched the first States and Divisions Football Championship in order to attract soccer talent from throughout the country.

A young Ghurka player from the winning Shan state team stood out from the crowd. His name was Suk Bahadur and he would go on to become the best Myanmar soccer player in history.

Suk Bahadur, the greatest Myanmar soccer player, and family.

Bahadur joined the national team as a right wing in 1952 and was an all-around athlete (he played field hockey and tennis, and held the Myanmar record for the 100 meter sprint, in addition to having served in the 4th Ghurka battalion of the Myanmar army).

In 1954, the team saw its first real international success, capturing bronze at the Asian Games in the Philippines. But it would take another 11 years, and the arrival of a particularly entrepreneurial coach by the name of U Sein Hlaing, for Myanmar to win on the world stage.

And win they did: two Asian Games championships in 1966 and 1970, and a grand total of five Southeast Asian Games (SEA) championships in 1965, 1967, 1969, 1971 and 1973 (the 1961 and ‘69 games being held on home turf in Yangon).

With the combination of Bahadur’s attacks, Sein Hlaing’s coaching, Aung Tin’s goal-keeping, and Win Nyunt Myo’s defense, the Myanmar national team had been transformed into one of the best soccer clubs in all of Asia.

And so, as the Dallas Tornados disembarked from their Pan American jet-liner in 1967, they knew what they were up against; Burma was the team to beat if they were going to prove their athletic prowess to the rest of the world.

“We know you to be an Asian soccer power,” remarked the coach Bob Kap in a newspaper report. “We have come to learn from you.”

Myanmar newspaper (The Banner) covered the 1967 games (source: UNT Library).

But first, a bit of leisure. The players were taken to the Shwedagon Pagoda and given an introduction to Buddhism by the Burmese Olympian U Tin Tut, and, later on, they were accommodated in the luxurious Strand Hotel.

The next day, however, they were swiftly defeated on the pitch by an elite Burmese team and would end up losing both games they played.

In fact, Bob Kap was so impressed by the quality of play (and the diplomatic opportunity) that he lobbied the US State Department to finance the Burmese national team to tour the United States (a plan which never really materialized).

This was the golden age of Myanmar soccer, after all.

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