Sepp Blatter, the president of the world football governing body FIFA, is making a two-day official visit to Burma beginning Wednesday in what may be a diplomatic coup for the military junta.
In the first-ever visit by a senior FIFA official to the country, Blatter will open the new Myanmar Football Academy and watch the pre-Olympic qualifying match between Burma and India in Mandalay in central Burma, and explore ways to strengthen the country's local football league, sources said.
However, Western diplomats in the region fear that Blatter, a controversial and outspoken 74-year-old Swiss, will be encouraged to visit the secretive, new capital Naypyidaw and have a meeting with military supremo Than Shwe and other generals.
For a regime struggling against international condemnation and isolation over its human rights record, especially by the West, this would be a welcome recognition: a very high-profile Western visitor meeting the top generals would be milked for all its worth, analysts said.
Even if he does not go to Naypyidaw, Blatter may find himself the guest of senior government leaders, including Thein Sein, the president elect under a new civilian government following November 2010 elections that were criticized as a sham by the opposition and Western nations.
Blatter’s visit is at the invitation of Myanmar [Burma] Football Federation chairman Zaw Zaw, a top businessman close to Senior General Than Shwe, a keen follower of the English Premiership League, who watches it regularly on satellite television.
Than Shwe is reported to be an avid Manchester United fan, as is his grandson, who two years ago encouraged his grandfather to establish a professional football league in Burma.
Football is Burma’s most popular sport. Each weekend the country comes to a virtual stop to watch English league on television—on pirated television transmissions illegally siphoned from Thailand.
Millions of kyat, the local currency, are wagered on each game.
Now that Burma has its own league, interest has peaked further. There are some 100 players on monthly salaries ranging from 300,000 kyat (U.S. $300) to one million kyat (U.S. $1,000), including foreign payers, mostly from Africa.
In January 2009, Than Shwe ordered the regime's cronies and businessmen to set up professional football teams, offering incentives including gem and jade mines.
Each team was mandated to have foreign coaches and at least five foreign players.
The top general’s grandson himself happens to be a player for the Delta United team owned by businessman Zaw Zaw, the key promoter of the Burmese football league.
Than Shwe, according to sources in Naypyidaw, immediately saw the political value of setting up a football league in a bid to capture credibility and support ahead of the 2010 elections.
If nothing else, it would be a distraction, one senior government official said at that time.
Than Shwe apparently had grandiose ideas, including wanting to see former Manchester United star David Beckham play.
Although the level of foreign players did not match the expected icons of the sport, the league proved popular.
Zaw Zaw, for his efforts in establishing the League, has now become the senior patron of the League and the titular head of the country's football body. He is renowned as a regime crony and his companies are subject to U.S. sanctions.
Reported by Larry Jagan in Bangkok.