Football has been played in Myanmar for over one hundred years, the first national competition having been held in 1895 and the first division established in 1900. It took until 16 May 2009, however, for the first match between professional clubs to be organised in Myanmar. “This was the culmination of a process that started only a few months earlier on 1 September 2008,” explained Myanmar Football Federation (MFF) General Secretary Tin Aung with pride. During his visit to the Home of FIFA in June this year, he told FIFA World how the MFF had progressed from an amateur league to a professional league that now attracts large crowds.
Until recently, the first division championship attracted small crowds – 2,000 spectators per match on average – and remained relatively anonymous. “For a long time, football in Myanmar was really just a team and a coach, no more,” said Aung. ”The clubs were not attached to fans but rather to the civil service, such as the police team, or the finance and customs teams.”
The federation was unanimous in its determination to improve the situation and turned to FIFA for concrete support in changing the structure of elite football in the country. Through the Member Association Professionalisation Programme, FIFA provides expertise, advice and support to associations that wish to modernise their structures, organisation, leagues, marketing strategies or other areas.
In September 2008, a FIFA delegation arrived in Yangon to carry out an evaluation of football in Myanmar. In collaboration with the MFF, a road map was adopted containing ten proposals to develop football while putting the main focus on the first division and the clubs.
“What made a difference was FIFA’s commitment to work alongside us, our own determination to effect change, and the support of the government,” said Aung. “And of course the clubs had to get involved, participate and embrace the project. The fact that this transformation was achieved in less than ten months was only possible thanks to teamwork.”
Following the establishment of the new Myanmar National League (MNL), regulations governing the league and the clubs were drawn up, establishing among other things the conditions for participation. “In the past, our football was too centralised and clubs were lacking a local dimension. To get the public more involved, we asked the owners to set up their clubs with real local roots. Looking at the great impact this had on the fans, we are going to keep this model for the moment.”
“Then we arranged for the best local players to be distributed equally among the new clubs, establishing categories of players. In addition, each club was allowed to sign five foreign players. But we are going to reduce that number in the future because first and foremost we want local football to be strengthened.”
On 17 March 2009, the MFF, the league and the clubs reached an agreement on the regulations, organisation and season of the Myanmar National League. The clubs were announced and the signing of the first local professional player – Thiha Sithu, the national team goalkeeper, who signed for Delta United FC – was covered in a press conference.
The media schedule was carefully planned to create a sense of anticipation at national level ahead of the kick-off of the championship, with the media covering a number of events, such as the confirmation of the match calendar and the signing of sponsors.
The stage was set for the Myanmar National League to make its debut. On 16 May 2009, the very first professional match in the history of Myanmar football was played between Zayar Shwe Myay FC and Yangon United FC in Yangon and attracted 29,000 spectators. “In the past, only the national team could hope to attract crowds of that size,” said Aung. “From the first match, the fans came in their thousands.” Indeed, in the first season of the MNL, stadiums registered an average attendance of 13,000 spectators, and the first champions, Yadanabon FC, received a triumphant reception from their local fans. This change is also reflected in the revenue figures: during the 2008-09 season, ticket sales for matches totalled USD 45,000, but that figure increased more than fivefold in the 2009-10 season, with sales of more than USD 250,000.
The media also played their part, with extensive coverage in the press and live television broadcasting of 13 of the 29 matches played. “Before 2009, there was no live football on television, but all that changed when our league turned professional. There was also delayed coverage of four matches, and we reached an agreement with the broadcaster for the broadcast rights. During the season in 2010, two matches are to be broadcast live each weekend.”
The next challenges facing the MFF are to promote the professional management of clubs, including the creation of a licensing system, to develop the standard of elite football by participating in the AFC Champions League and, once the elite level has been strengthened, to apply the positive dynamic to the youth level. At present, youth football is managed largely by the Department of Education, the schools and the universities. “Our federation has to get involved with young players at grassroots level and organise activities for them,” explained Aung.
On the back of the extraordinary success of the Myanmar National League, there is no doubt that the MFF will accomplish this task.