“I am convinced that the entire secret of the English for keeping well in tropical countries is summed up in the word ‘exercise’.”
– Joseph Dautremer, Burma Under British Rule, 1913
Football and boxing were the two most popular sports amongst British soldiers, and the first organised football league took place in 1894, won by the West Yorkshire Regiment. Games were generally played on teams own fields, or at the local parade grounds. One member of the Burmese Athletic Association suggested that a water tank north of the railway station could be reclaimed and used as a permanent athletic field. Apparently the idea was ridiculed by his fellow members, asking what he thought would be possible beyond swimming or water polo – but he pressed ahead with the plan. By 1909 the reclamation had progressed enough that football games could be held on it, along with cricket and tennis.
Football took root in the country, and the BAA grounds remained in use after independence. In 1953 they were renamed Bogyoke Aung San Stadium, and were thoroughly renovated at the end of that decade. The period was a golden age for Burmese football; in the 1954 Asian Games the team won a bronze medal, a gold in 1966 and a second in 1970 – the second team to ever do so. They qualified for and competed in the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
Leading the Myanmar national side through these achievements was the man, the legend: Suk Bahadur. A Gurkha from Shan state, he was a renowned striker and captain of the team. He was also a successful tennis and hockey player, could run the 100m in less than 11 seconds, and there’s one picture of him seemingly being given a prize for weightlifting too. And that wasn’t all; when he wasn’t busy crushing his opponents on track and field, Suk Bahadur crushed enemies of the state as a major in the 4th Infantry Battalion.
Some sources also claim Suk was awarded the Aung Sung Thuriya medal for bravery. This is the highest military award Myanmar has, the equivalent to the Victoria Cross in the UK or the Medal of Honor in the US. Other, slightly more convincing sources claim it was a different Suk Bahadur that won the Aung Sung Thuriya; Suk Bahadur Rai, and that he died in action and was awarded it posthumously. It’s further complicated by the fact that Bahadur Rai was an honorific used in British India, and so may have entered common usage as a name or honorific used by communities independent of colonial authorities. The award was given in 1951, and he started his captainship of the national team in 1952 – so it’s possible, but perhaps unlikely. My head says no, but my heart says yes.
The Myanmar National League came into existence in 2009, and until Shan United’s victory in 2017 has been won every year by either Yangon United or the Mandalay-based Yadanarbon. Before 2009 the main competition was the Myanmar Premier League, comprised mainly of teams from government ministries, and dominated by the fearsome Finance and Revenue FC. Their success did not continue into the National League, and despite a much needed rebrand to Mountain Lion FC they’re now in the second division of the league.
Probably the most popular football competition in the country is the English Premier League, with Manchester United overwhelmingly the most favoured team – certainly the majority of taxi drivers in Yangon will readily declare their loyalty. This is probably due to both the incredible marketing machine that has made Manchester United popular around the world, and the fact that they enjoyed their own golden age at a time when many people in Myanmar began watching the Premier League. Their popularity is also probably the reason why the names of seven of the twelve teams competing in the National League this year end with United: