What the World Cup Means to the Burmese

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The questions began practically the moment I stepped foot in Burma. Intense curiosity about the rest of the world is a given in a place where a repressive junta and international sanctions have isolated the local populace. But these weren’t the normal queries about democracy or human rights. Instead, I was deluged by questions of a far more serious nature: As an American, whom did I think would win the England-U.S.A. match? Should people take Maradona seriously as a coach? How come other country’s squads didn’t have to field rulers’ offspring, even when they could barely dribble the ball? (Background for the last query: Burmese junta honcho Than Shwe’s athletically challenged grandson was once given a place on the national soccer team during an international exhibition match.)

This year’s World Cup marks a milestone in Burmese history. For the first time, Burma’s two T.V. stations, which usually air either histrionic soap operas or mind-numbing news reports about ruling generals conducting factory tours or military inspections, will show live international footage — in the form of every single World Cup match.

The decision to treat Burma’s downtrodden populace to a month of global sport isn’t simply about indulging a football-mad populace. (England, the former colonizer, is by far the most popular team in Burma, though Brazil has its fans, too.) After all, the junta isn’t exactly known for considering the wants of its subjects. Instead, the airing of World Cup matches is about smart politics. Burma is set to hold elections this year, a likely farcical exercise in which the junta will only cement its grip on power. (The last balloting back in 1990 was ignored by the military regime since their party lost badly.) What better way to divert people’s attentions from a dismal economy and paltry human rights than the beautiful game?

The other benefit for Burmese has been a sudden surge of electricity in the evenings when World Cup matches unfold live on television. Despite Burma’s plentiful natural gas and oil deposits, the ruling generals have sold off energy to neighboring countries, usually leaving locals plagued by constant power cuts. During a drought last month, cities like Rangoon, the country’s
largest, were surviving on only two to three hours of power a day. But since the World Cup has begun, Rangoon has been gifted enough juice to keep televisions humming, obviating the need for expensive and noisy back-up generators. Like the rest of the world, though, Burmese fans still have to endure the blare from all those vuvuzelas.

Oh, and if you want to get a sense of how soccer-mad Burmese are, check out this picture I snapped in Bagan, where kids were using an ancient temple complex as their soccer pitch.