Missing up to 10 players who are boycotting the World Cup qualifier against Japan on Friday has ratcheted up the degree of difficulty for Myanmar against Asia’s top-ranked team.
Experienced stars such as defender Zaw Min Tun, striker Kyaw Ko Ko and goalkeeper Kyaw Zin Htet are among the players who are refusing to participate in international matches for Myanmar in protest at February’s military coup.
The struggle to assemble a team to face Japan, then Kyrgyzstan on June 11 and Tajikistan on June 15, meant that the national squad had to delay its departure to Tokyo from May 14 to 21.
“In these challenging days there are more important issues than football,” Myanmar coach Antoine Hey told the Associated Press.
Hey, a German, said while he accepted the feelings of the players who have made themselves unavailable, “we have a responsibility … and hope for the support and the blessing of all Myanmar people.”
Myanmar hasn’t played a World Cup qualifier since November, 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A number of footballers made their intentions known as early as Feb. 13 as they protested in Yangon, and played impromptu games on the streets of the country’s biggest city.
“We will only play football on the street until we get democracy,” Kyaw Zin Htet told German television at the time. “We won’t play for the national team under the military dictatorship.”
Some other athletes are following suit. In April, Melbourne, Australia-based swimmer Win Htet Oo said he would not represent Myanmar at the Tokyo Olympics.
The Myanmar Football Federation has said that players who refused to represent the country could face future suspension. And there’s also the prospect of sanctions from soccer’s international governing body if the team doesn’t fulfil its international commitments because of political issues.
The U.N. special envoy for Myanmar warned earlier this week of possible civil war in the country, saying people are arming themselves against the military junta and protesters have started shifting from defensive to offensive actions.
Chrisrine Schraner Burgener told a virtual U.N. news conference that people are starting self-defense actions because they are frustrated and fear attacks by the military, which carried out a coup against the democratically elected government, and is using “a huge scale of violence.”
For the soccer players who have traveled to Japan, there is one objective.
The top team in each of the eight groups and the four best runners-up in the second round of Asian World Cup qualifying will progress to the next stage. Myanmar, fourth in Group F with six points from five games, has little chance of going to Qatar for the 2022 World Cup, but still has a chance of qualifying for the 2023 Asian Cup.
“We need to qualify for a tournament like the Asian Cup,” Hey said. “This would be a milestone for football development in Myanmar. Without playing in an international tournament it is hard for our players to be seen and go and play overseas. It is all about image.”
Hey is under no illusions about taking on Japan, which leads the group after five straight wins.
“We are looking forward to playing the best team in Asia in a competitive match and we will face Japan with pride and enthusiasm,” he said.
Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu has also had to deal with player unavailability. With the domestic J.League season ongoing, Moriyasu has selected an all-European based squad.
“First of all, we want to win the game against Myanmar and book our place in the next round,” Moriyasu said. “We want to use the games after that to strengthen and prepare to get through the final qualifying round, but first of all we want to get ready for the game in front of us as best we can.”