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English football champs visit Shwedagon

Members of the Leicester City football team pose for a photo in front of Rangoon's Shwedagon Pagoda on 22 May 2016. (Photo: DVB)

Newly crowned English Premier League champions Leicester City made a short stopover in Rangoon on Sunday, allowing hundreds of football-mad fans to catch a glimpse of the team, which has won worldwide acclaim for its rags-to-riches season when it deposed traditional soccer giants such as Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal to win the coveted league title last month.

The Leicester squad, affectionately nicknamed The Foxes, flew into Yangon International Airport from Bangkok on Sunday morning, before being whisked to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the city’s most famous landmark and one of Buddhism’s most revered temples.

According to Burmese state media, some 500 fans welcomed the Leicester players at the airport. The team then paid respect at Shwedagon, accompanied by Buddhist monks, before being introduced to members of the Premier Skills Myanmar group, which offers training to grassroots coaches and referees across the country.

The team flew out from Rangoon later that evening, the Global New Light of Myanmar said.

The Foxes, in fact, are no strangers to Buddhist ceremonies; the club chairman is Thai billionaire Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who last year flew a group of Buddhist monks over to Leicester to bless the ground and pray for the team’s success — a ritual which is sure to be repeated following the record run of victories the team notched up, losing only three matches throughout the league season.

The players have just completed a five-day tour of Thailand, including an open-air bus parade in Bangkok and a short beach break on Phuket.

In addition to a Thai owner, the team is sponsored by Vichai’s company King Power, which is a retailer of duty-free products in the Thai capital.

The whirlwind tour to Southeast Asia was organised at the behest of the Thai chairman, who told reports in the UK he wanted to give the team a chance to thank its growing fan base in Thailand.

In Burma, tea shops and squares are often packed out when English soccer matches are screened. Burmese fans are traditionally loyal to perennial powerhouses Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea; few had even heard of Leicester City until this season.

Burma’s domestic football league has been re-established in recent years, following a hiatus during many the era of military rule.

The national men’s team was dominant in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and 70s, winning the Asian Games in 1966 and 1970, and the Southeast Asian Games five times in a row from 1965 to 1973.

But although the national women’s squad has achieved relative success, the Burmese men’s team has faltered; it has never been able to rediscover its former glory and has never qualified for the World Cup.

A revamped Myanmar Football Federation is now under the chairmanship of former military crony Zaw Zaw, who has attracted advertising and sponsorship into the domestic league.

The world soccer body FIFA has also invested in youth training schemes in Burma, now that the country has emerged from decades of dictatorship.