Sunday, August 20, 2017

Winds of change for Shan United

High in the Shan Yoma, it’s hard to escape reminders of the prominence of Aung Ko Win in the capital of Myanmar’s largest state. Dominating the main road in the heart of Taunggyi stands the KBZ bank building. Since 2010, the city’s professional football team KBZ FC has been playing in the KBZ stadium. You get the idea.

But with the cool breezes of close season came change, and last weekend KBZ was reborn. No longer the private preserve of Aung Ko Win, it is now backed by 15 local businessmen. Welcome to Shan United, playing at Taunggyi Stadium.

Formed in 2005, the club played in the amateur Myanmar League as one of the few sides not named after a military division or a government department (old-timers in Nay Pyi Taw still talk about that thrilling final when Commerce played Finance and Revenue). When professionalism came along in 2009, KBZ made the switch, representing Shan State in an eight-team competition dominated by the country’s Bamar-majority regions.

In a telegram from the US embassy released by WikiLeaks, it was revealed that businessmen like Aung Ko Win were informed by then Senior General Than Shwe that they had been “chosen” to own the new professional football teams.

“When asked why the owners would participate in such an expensive endeavour, Nyo Myint observed that they had little choice. ‘When the Senior General asks someone to do something, you do it with no complaints,’” reads the transcript.

The papers add that according to Than Lwin, then a consultant to the Kanbawza team, Aung Ko Win had budgeted “US$2 million for the 2009 season”.

The documents also say that “owners must build new stadiums in their respective regions by 2011, at an estimated cost of $1 million per stadium”.

Shan United play infront of their renamed fan club. Facebook/SUFCShan United play infront of their renamed fan club. Facebook/SUFC

As of the start of the 2016 season, only five of the original eight sides had played in their own stadiums, although Southern Myanmar and Hantharwady (formerly Okkthar United) are currently engaged in construction work.

When KBZ moved to Taunggyi, the city’s stadium – owned by the Shan State government – was loaned to the club before ownership of the ground was transferred to the MFF, which assumed responsibility for the facility.

The club’s new ownership has grand plans to accompany its new name. At a ceremony before the first game under their new moniker, Khon Naung Myint Wai set these out.

“Shan United will open a youth academy this year, and we have plans to build a new home for our team to international footballing standards,” he told fans who had packed the stadium for the first game of the season and the accompanying Iron Cross concert.

Iron Cross play a concert to celebrate the new team nameFacebook/SUFCIron Cross play a concert to celebrate the new team nameFacebook/SUFC

KBZ is not the first team to change owners. Ayeyawady United (originally Delta United), formerly under the ownership of Myanmar Football Federation president and Max Myanmar chair Zaw Zaw, are now funded by a group of 26 local entrepreneurs.

Ayeyawady have gone on to represent Myanmar in Asia twice, and once again qualified for this year’s AFC Cup by winning the 2015 General Aung San Shield.

Shan United’s new owners have similar ambitions, as Khon Naung Myint Wai has proclaimed their determination to claim the 2016 league crown. To do so, the club has been on an off-season spending spree, replacing not only the ownership and backroom staff, but also more than half their playing squad.

In 2015, the side relied heavily on the strike pair of now-departed Giorgi Tsimakuridze of Georgia and former Premier League player Caleb Folan. But a weak line-up behind them often sat back and watched, and looked out of their depth when the two carried injuries in the first half of the season.

The side have picked up three players from the Ayeyawady side that won last year’s cup. All three have experience within Myanmar’s national team set-up and are led by the U23’s SEA Games silver-medal-winning captain Nay Lin Tun. Their most interesting signing, though, may yet be that of Thiha Sithu, the former Yadanarbon goalkeeper who was sent on gardening leave by his former club last year. He joins the club to compete with U20s hero Myo Min Latt for the number one jersey.

When it came to the January 10 game that opened the 2016 season, the fireworks that lit up the sky did not translate to the pitch, as the team played out a lacklustre goalless draw with Hantharwady United – in which new keeper Thiha Sithu accepted man of the match honours wearing a jersey still sponsored by KBZ Bank.

“I think emotion got the better of our players today,” said new head coach Royter Moreira after the game. “They made many simple mistakes in their passing and fell apart up front.

“I’ve only had two weeks with this club so far. It’ll take time for our communication to gel, but we’ll do our best to be champions this year,” added the Brazilian.

Shan State was home to the country’s most celebrated player, the Gurkha from Kalaw – the “Burmese Pele” – Suk Bandhur, who starred for the national side in its Golden Era when Myanmar’s football ranked among the best in Asia.

“We welcome these changes at Shan United,” said MFF president Zaw Zaw. “Shan State has a great history of providing famed and talented footballers. If they succeed with this youth academy it will benefit our nation’s footballing prospects.”

Time will tell if the dream of Shan United’s new owners of bringing international competition to their mountain fortress will come true. But hopes are rising that, as more teams spread their wings from their nomadic homes in Yangon’s Aung San and Thuwunna stadiums, they will find local support that will reignite a Myanmar National League that has found it difficult to gain traction in recent years.

10 19 20
10 10 22
10 6 21
Ayeyawady United
10 5 15
Rakhine United
10 0 14
Magwe FC
10 -2 13
Zwekapin United
10 -4 13
Nay Pyi Taw FC
10 -8 9
10 -6 8
10 -6 7
Chin United
10 -7 7
10 -7 6
Last Updated - 1 April 2017
Manaw Myay
22 51 52
22 21 49
Nay Pyi Taw FC
22 33 48
Mahar United
22 31 48
Myawady FC
22 23 36
Mawyawadi FC
22 1 35
City Stars
22 1 28
University FC
22 -17 23
Dagon FC
22 -11 20
Pong Gan
22 -37 12
United of Thanlyin
22 -47 11
Silver Stars
22 -49 10
Last Updated - 28 August 2016