North Korea’s World Cup Team Faces Shaming, and the Coach Becomes a Political Prisoner

Probably no country on earth would be too thrilled with a World Cup team that strikes out with three straight losses, but while other teams with unsatisfactory performances in South Africa faced sanctions that included suspension from a few games, as the French squad was, the stakes were much higher for the North Korean team.

No, they weren’t executed. (It seems that a lot of people have been wondering about that, judging from the number of hits this blog gets from search terms such as “did they kill the North Korean soccer team”). Even North Korea would not be that stupid or brutal, I hope. And the players, at least, escaped being forced into prison camps.

But they were subjected to a six-hour shaming session:

The entire squad was forced onto a stage at the People’s Palace of Culture and subjected to criticism from Pak Myong-chol, the sports minister, as 400 government officials, students and journalists watched.

The players were subjected to a “grand debate” on July 2 because they failed in their “ideological struggle” to succeed in South Africa, Radio Free Asia and South Korean media reported.

It wasn’t quite the entire squad — the two North Korean players with Japanese nationality escaped the punishment, probably because they (quite astutely) did not return to North Korea, but instead went straight back to Japan.

The Chollima’s coach was not quite so lucky, though. The players were forced to publicly blame him for their loss, and to criticize his performance. The punishment did not end there:

The team’s coach, Kim Jong-hun, was reportedly forced to become a builder and has been expelled from the Workers’ Party of Korea.

This is putting it euphemistically. North Korea’s labor camps are every bit as harsh, as you might expect. I suppose North Korea could not put its best football players in the prison camps if it ever hoped to field a decent team again, but maybe they figure they will still be able to find someone willing to serve as a coach even under the threat of being sent away to a work camp.

The coach was punished for “betraying” Kim Jong-un – one of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il’s sons and heir apparent.

It’s interesting, though, that the alleged “betrayal” was not of Kim Jong-il, but of his son. There has been a lot of speculation lately that North Korea’s recent impulsiveness and erratic behavior (well, more impulsive and erratic than even North Korea usually is) has been a result of a potential regime-shake up that is laying the path for Kim Jong-un’s eventual succession of his father.

Despite the harsh treatment the players and coach suffered, it is no surprise that North Korea did not have any staff or teammates defect in South Africa. In contrast with teams from nations such as Cuba, where such defections are relatively common, defections from North Korea are rarer — because North Korea holds hostage the family members of its nationals who go abroad. If a member of the North Korean team had tried to defect, he would do so knowing that his actions would essentially amount to a death sentence for his kin back home.


North Koreans Watch World Cup Live, Results Were Less Promising Than Expected

Ouch. Kim Jong-il must be regretting his decision to allow the first live showing of a North Korean soccer match for the national team’s game today against Portugal.

After the Chollima’s rather impressive 2-1 loss to #1 ranked Brazil, and after receiving a lot of praise from startled soccer fans worldwide, the North Korean government must have decided it was safe to allow the game to air in North Korea, un-filtered by the state. Most games, including the match against Brazil last week, are only shown a day or two later, after being safely sanitized for the public’s consumption.

I was only able to watch the first half of the game, after which score stood at a 1-0 lead for Portugal. That was still an impressive result for the Koreans, who were massively outmatched. I was shocked to see the final score sometime later, however: 7-0, for Portugal. Apparently, after I looked away, the game turned into a massive slaughter.

If I had to guess, sometime after the third or fourth goal, the live feed being broadcast to the DPRK got cut. Or I sort of hope it was, anyway. By all accounts, it was an exceedingly painful second half to watch, at least for anyone not from Portugal — and I can only imagine how much worse the reaction was in Pyongyang.


American Exceptionalism: So Exceptional That We Are the Only Nation That Realizes Soccer Sucks

There is nothing more boring than Americans who find a personal sense of superiority in their disdain for soccer. Sadly, they are everywhere. Warning: reading these articles may be dangerous to your health, as they tend to induce extreme and uncontrollable episodes of eye-rolling. Particularly so when they start bragging about not understanding soccer. “The rest of the world likes this sport, but I can’t understand what’s going on or why it’s interesting! Res ipsa loquitur, America is better. And smarter. And prettier.”

And then there are the Theories. The convoluted, detailed explanations for both why soccer sucks and why Americans are the only ones capable of comprehending this great truth. All of the soccer haters have Theories:

More than having to do with its origin, soccer is a European sport because it is all about death and despair. Americans would never invent a sport where the better you get the less you score.”

Because the sport itself is so boring, so devoid of action, of physical contact, of life, it falls upon the hyped-up (and in many cases, liquored up) crowd to enact the action that it failed to witness on the field. The patriotic crowd shows up looking for blood, and ends up with a zero-zero tie. Simply put, it is because the sport is so lifeless, that the crowds are so prone to violence.

For sure, there may be a number of reasons that is the case but my suspicion is that the so-called “beautiful game” is not so beautiful to American sensibilities. We like, as good small “d” democrats, our underdogs for sure but we also still expect folks in the end to get their just desert. And, in sports, that means excellence should prevail. Of course, the fact that is often not the case when it comes to soccer may be precisely the reason the sport is so popular in the countries of Latin America and Europe.

Despite the heroic efforts of soccer moms, suburban liberals, and World Cup hype, soccer will never catch on as a big time sport in America. No game in which actually scoring goals is of such little importance could possibly occupy the attention of average Americans. Our country has yet to succumb to the nihilism, existentialism, and anomie that have overtaken Europe.

In fact, if Real Americans were in charge, the World Cup would never be broadcast in America. The media’s coverage of the World Cup is all part of a thinly disguised liberal plot to destroy America, and to force “multiculturalism” down our throats:

Part of the liberal sales pitch for soccer is its popularity with Hispanics. Liberals who fetishize race are eager to adopt a sport with a special appeal for a certain minority, and it would never occur to them that new arrivals to the country might be well served adapting to traditional U.S. pastimes. To the left, it’s America that must change.

Or maybe, as one commenter claims, the reason America doesn’t like soccer is because we already have freedom. Only people without freedom — i.e., the rest of the world — need to use soccer as a substitute for the real thing:

Most of the rest of the world find almost exclusively in soccer, what we enjoy in great measure in real life: Freedom within sound rules to achieve our own goals.

As you can see, it is Very Important to these people that everyone knows how much soccer sucks. Lest someone in this great nation enjoy the World Cup, they must proclaim to everyone the truth: that America is unique among nations in being able to realize that soccer is a deficient and boring sport.

Except there’s a problem with that. America is not, in fact, a special, soccer-scorning snowflake — we aren’t actually the only nation that, every four years, saturates the media with repetitive OpEds on why soccer sucks. Australia is our equal on that front.

And this is from a nation that believes cricket is a thrilling activity. Something is very wrong with that country.

But part of the U.S.’s dislike for soccer (and Australia’s too) is that our soccer teams just aren’t themselves particularly exceptional. Unlike in the Olympics, we aren’t reliably going to wind up on top.

Oh, the U.S.’s squad isn’t bad. And, truth be told, I kind of enjoy the opportunity to cheer for the home team and also be cheering for the underdog. But they’re no Dream Team, so it must be tempting for some sports aficionados to write off soccer as “not important” as a means of excusing the U.S.’s failure to dominate.

But our failure to be Number One isn’t the entire story. For instance, our women’s team is pretty phenomenal, but that has done little to increase the standing of the sport in this country. Of course, that has more to do with a cultural disdain for women’s sports than it does with soccer, but even if the men’s team did the unthinkable and won the World Cup this year, I doubt soccer would become the next big thing here.

Another reason soccer never took hold as strongly here is market saturation. In the States — and also in Australia — there are already plenty of non-soccer sports crowding the airwaves, and there’s little demand for yet another major pro-sports league. Also, soccer is less convenient in terms of advertising opportunities for broadcast tv, so the networks themselves have little incentive to try to increase soccer’s prominence.

Almost certainly, soccer (at least at the pro level) will never be as huge in the U.S. as it is overseas. And that’s okay — plenty of sports in America have a small but viable market presence, and are still respected for what they do offer. But for the Soccer Haters, the idea that soccer might be semi-popular in the U.S. is, essentially, the equivalent of burning the American flag.

As a nation, we really need to get over the idea that there is a special virtue in disliking soccer. If it’s not your cup of tea, that’s fine; I promise that the Liberal Inquisition has no plans on brainwashing you to make you enjoy it.

But your failure to understand soccer says a lot more about you than it does about soccer.


North Korea Officially World’s Worst Place To Watch the World Cup

Things are not looking good for North Korea’s football fans.

After qualifying for the World Cup for the second time ever, and for the first time since 1966, the North Korean squad’s prospects took a nose dive when the draw for the tournament put it in the same group as Brazil, Cote d’Ivore, and Portugal — a.k.a. the Group of Death.

And now North Korea might not even be able to watch the World Cup, as South Korea is threatening not to broadcast the games to the North:

As part of a policy to improve ties with Pyongyang, [in 2006] the South Korean government picked up the bill for national broadcasters to relay live transmissions of the matches into the North.

Since then, North Korea has conducted two nuclear weapons tests and shot a South Korean tourist in the back. Many here also suspect the North may have attacked a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors.

Now that South Korea has concluded that North Korea is responsible for the attack on the Cheonan, North Korea’s access to World Cup broadcasts is likely in even greater jeopardy. The Cheonan, a South Korean warship, sank on March 26, with the loss of 46 lives. Serial numbers on the torpedoes that were recovered from the wreckage of the ship have since been identified as originating from North Korea.

Even had North Korea managed to refrain from attacking its only source of World Cup coverage, however, it was already unlikely that the average North Korean citizen would have the opportunity to watch any of the matches. Kim Jong-il has already declared that games will not be shown live, and only footage from games which North Korea wins will be shown at all.

As it turns outs, this means that whether or not South Korea is willing to broadcast the World Cup to North Korea is probably a moot issue. The North Korean team — nicknamed the Chollima, after Korea’s version of the Pegasus — is something of an underdog, facing (rather generous) odds of 350-to-1 against them winning the tournament. North Korea’s placement in the Group of Death, which means they will face Brazil (ranked #1), Portugal (#3), and Cote d’Ivore (#27) in the opening rounds, makes it extremely unlikely that they will win even a single game.

North Korean citizens hoping to catch the World Cup won’t have the option of seeing it in person, either, thanks to North Korea’s policies regarding border security. It would not look good for North Korea, however, if it no fans showed up at its games. This presents Kim Jong-il with something of a problem: how can North Korea make sure it has supporters in the bleachers when the team heads down to South Africa?

Answer: Buy them.

Few North Koreans will be able to cheer their team at the World Cup in South Africa. So the country is recruiting 1,000 Chinese fans.

The Beijing office of the North Korean Sports Committee is giving out tickets to the tournament, China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.

The Chinese fans will attend North Korea’s games against Brazil and Portugal, Xinhua said.

Rather than watching the World Cup, North Koreans hoping to watch some soccer this summer may have to settle for Centre Forward instead. You can watch the the trailer for the movie on YouTube here, and see why critics have declared Centre Forward to be “the best North Korean football-themed movie of all time.”


The International Politics of Sport

Due to being distracted by snow in the first half of this week, and to being sick and cranky in the second half, this blog has been a bit neglected lately. However, I think I am finally over the worst of the Cold of Doom, or whatever it was I was laid up with, so hopefully LL2 will now be back to its regularly scheduled programming.

To get back on track, and in the spirit of the Winter Olympics, here’s a quick post on how international sporting events are all too often a mere continuation of politics by other means.

The Africa Cup of Nations wrapped up earlier this month (Egypt won. Again.), but the controversy over Togo’s ban from future Cups continues on. FIFA has assigned an Interim Caretaker Committee to the the Togo Football Federation, and earlier this week the Committee appealed the ban to the Court of Arbitration of Sport in Switzerland. A provisional ruling is expected within a few days, or at least sometime before the 20th, when the draw for the 2012 Africa Cup is scheduled.

Back in January, before the start of the tournament, the Togolese squad, while en route to their hotel in Angola, was attacked by a group of Cabindan terrorists. Three people were killed, and several players were injured. As a result of the attack, the Togo team left Angola and returned home.

The Confederation of African Football (CAF), in a striking display of callousness, later banned Togo from the 2012 and 2014 Agrica Cups, in addition to issuing the team a $50,000 fine. According to CAF’s press statement on the decision, the punishment was warranted due to “political interference” by the Togolese government:

At that time [of the attack], CAF said they have understood perfectly the decision of players not to participate in the competition.

Meanwhile, following a decision taken by players to participate in the competition, the Togolese government decided to call back their national team.

The decision taken by the political authorities is infringing CAF and CAN regulations. Therefore, a decision has been taken to suspend the Togo national team for the next two editions of Africa Cup of Nations, with a fine of $50,000.00 handed to the Togolese national football association, in conformity with article 78 of Africa Cup of Nations Angola 2010.

Article 78 allows for sanctions to be imposed when “A forfeit [is] notified less than twenty days before the start or during the final competition…” Technically, I suppose, Togo’s decision to not rejoin the cup may count as a ‘forfeiture,’ but because I’m feeling too lazy to read all the fine print, I am going to assume there is something in the CAF regulations that can be used to excuse dropping from a tournament due to fatal terrorist attacks.

“The CAF (Confederation of African Football) was warned repeatedly that this was a country at war. They had documents explaining this, but they wouldn’t heed the warnings. They must take responsibility. We are not rebels, but a military and political movement originating in Cabinda. We’re not rebels, but resistance fighters. Cabinda is a territory illegally occupied by Angola, and we are fighting for its liberation.

“This operation was just the beginning of a series of targeted actions that will continue constantly throughout Cabinda’s territory.”

Previously on this blog, Cabinda has had the dubious distinction of being nominated for the Worst Website by an Unrecognized State. Although the Cabinda liberation movement is not particularly organized, the attack on Togo shows they are still capable of carrying out terrorist strikes. The attack on the Togolese team seems like an odd choice for a group focused on liberation from Angola, but it was, more or less, a political statement intended to garner some attention to their cause and to announce to the world that their claims to independence from Angola were serious. Although Cabinda has no particular dispute with Togo, attacking a foreign soccer squad has been shown to be a pretty good way to solicit media coverage.

CAF’s ban on the Togo Football Federation, like the terrorist attack that resulted in the ban’s imposition, has political implications for African nations, as well. The President of ECOWAS has gotten involved in the controversy, pressuring CAF to change its stance: “The ECOWAS Commission wishes to note that the African Union, in its recently concluded Summit in Addis Ababa, expressed sympathy and condolences to the players, the Government and people of Togo over the tragedy. It is strange that CAF has chosen to remain apathetic to the general African feeling towards the Togolese predicament.”

It seems likely that the Court of Arbitration for Sport will overturn CAF’s ban on Togo, but stay tuned for more updates later this week on CAS’ ruling.