Chelsea’s pre-season tour of Asia has hit further controversy after Amnesty International implored the Barclays Premier League club to address human rights issues during their trip to China.
The call from the prominent international lobby group comes on the same day as the Malaysian Football Association were forced to guarantee that manager Avram Grant and defender Tal Ben Haim would be allowed into the south-east Asian country, despite its refusal to recognise Israel.
Amnesty’s intervention comes amid heightened concerns over China’s human rights record following the Beijing government’s allegedly heavy-handed treatment of pro-independence protestors in Tibet – just months before the Chinese capital hosts the Olympic Games this summer.
The Blues revealed today that the opening game of the Samsung-Chelsea Asia Tour 2008 will be in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou against Super League side Guangzhou Pharmaceutical.
It prompted Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon to say: “I am delighted that we are coming to China, and particularly to Guangzhou, for the first time. We have a lot of support here and now we can give our Chinese fans the opportunity to see us play.
“Chinese football is developing at a rapid pace and Chelsea wants to play a role in that.”
The west Londoners are not the first Premier League club to play in the country, with both Liverpool and Manchester United staging pre-season games there in recent years.
But given the timing of Chelsea’s announcement, Amnesty believe it is only right that they should raise the thorny subject of human rights during their time in China.
“If Chelsea Football Club really want to build a lasting legacy in China they should address the issue of human rights head on when they are there,” said Tim Hancock, campaigns director of Amnesty.
“If Chelsea go ahead with their plans to play a pre-season friendly in China, they should go with their eyes open.
“China’s human rights record is appalling in areas like free speech, fair trials and the extensive use of the death penalty.
“The reality is that people in China cannot speak out without fear of reprisal so it’s up to others to do so for them.”
Kenyon was in Kuala Lumpur yesterday to announce the Blues would play a Malaysian Selection side on July 29 as part of their Far East summer programme.
Questions however have since been raised about whether Grant and defender Ben Haim would be permitted to enter Malaysia as the country has no diplomatic ties with Israel.
But FAM deputy president Khairy Jamaluddin has downplayed those fears, citing the precedent set by the Israeli national cricket team’s participation in the 1997 ICC Trophy.
“(Tour organisers) Pro Events has been advised to look into this matter and seek the necessary clearance,” Khairy said.
“The FAM have agreed to support and sanction this tournament. After all precedents have been set before.”
Chelsea last visited the Malaysian capital in 2003, when they claimed the inaugural Premier League Asia Trophy with victories over the Malaysia national side and Newcastle.
As part of the arrangement, Malaysia national coach B Sathianathan has been invited to Stamford Bridge for a two-week placement ahead of the start of the Premier League season in August.