Tonight the Wikileaks US Embassy Cables story is focused on the probability that Julian Assange is to be questioned by UK police, that the US lent on a UN climate chief, that there are secret Nato plans to defend the Baltic states from Russia and, fantastically, that Burma’s General Than Shwe considered buying Manchester United.
What a move that would have been. Audacious maybe, but a man who has the nerve to build himself a brand new capital city hundreds of miles from anywhere much, and to move the country’s government there almost overnight, is no stranger to the audacious.
Four years ago at his daughter’s wedding guests gave gifts worth $50m, so an offer of $1bn for Manchester United in January 2009 would have valued the club at only twenty wedding lists.
But this is a story of what might have been. It was his grandson’s idea but Than Shwe, in an uncommon moment of consideration for his international reputation, thought it might ‘look bad’ coming so soon after Cyclone Nargis killed 140,000 and his government’s help for survivors was slow and disorganised in coming – where it came at all.
It would not have been such a random thing to do. You think Aung San Suu Kyi unites the Burmese people? Not quite as much as Manchester United.
In 1995 the only game of football I saw in Myanmar was between the army and the navy on local TV. The players included keepy-uppy-caneball skills in their bags of tricks. By 2002 satellite TV and the Premier League had arrived and the guy who served my breakfast in Mandalay gave me a daily results update with his scrambled eggs. He was staying up in the middle of the night to watch. He supported Manchester United.
Today in empty shops and outdoor teashops, in cinemas and ‘village halls’ large numbers of men gather to watch, and bet on, every Premiership game that’s on and pretty much every big game’s on live. Very many of them are monks (they bet too) and they are almost all Manchester United fans.
The lads who work at the beach hotel where I stayed this year – almost but not quite to a man – are obsessed with English football. They almost all support Manchester United – outside in the dark, TV turned around in an open window, chairs set in the sand, mosquitoes at play.
My friend luckyboystar supports Arsenal because he likes to ‘walk on the other side of the street’ and he’s like that. But the only, and still tiny, challenge to Manchester United’s primacy – and perhaps eventually to the Premier League’s – comes in the form of Lionel Messi and Barcelona. Champions League games start at 1.15am and draw a good crowd. Especially if Manchester United are playing.
Was the idea of buying United just another fan’s madcap ambition? Would Than Shwe’s purchase of Manchester United (he’d surely sail through that fit and proper person test) have forced Myanmar’s football fans to switch their allegiance? Or could it have been the brilliant idea that brought together the interests of the people and the interests of the government in a most audacious single-issue alliance.
It wasn’t to be. Than Shwe has decided instead to create a new league in Myanmar, imposing on eight favoured-status businesses to build new stadia and to recruit overseas players. One of the sponsoring companies has explained that “‘When the senior general asks someone to do something, you do it with no complaints”. He can’t have Manchester United (though it might have worked out better than for the Glazers) but he’s seen the power of football, its hold on the lives of so many Burmese, how it distracts them. He intends to use it to his own ends.
And he’s just the kind of guy Sepp Blatter likes to do business with.
Myanmar 2026. Did you read it here first?