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Fear of football

Whose security?
Us and them and them and us…

As I reflected on the Korea v. Poland game, some thoughts began to take shape in my mind – and right now I just want to get them out in the open. Pat Nevin’s comment that travelling with a football was like carrying a second passport, so I’ll write this with football as my nationality and see what happens…

The closing of Seoul’s main square to traffic to allow the crowds to gather in a spirit of joyfulness and celebration was unprecedented in modern Korean history – aside from staged political gatherings in support of the regime. That the event passed off without incident was as beautiful to me as the smiles on people’s faces as they basked in the glow of victory. I realised that sport can play a transformational role, and I also began to understand the reasons for the discrimination I had witnessed elsewhere.

The event must have had the Korean leadership rubbing their hands with delight. Not only did their team win, but for the first time the people had gathered to express national solidarity without a confrontational political agenda, however justified it might be. Molotov cocktails had, this time, at least been exchanged for fireworks.

As we wandered around central Seoul, we were constantly greeted with cries of “Welcome to Korea!” and “What country are you from?” – “England…” we said, at which point we would hear a chorus of “David Beckham! Michael Owen!” echoing back to us. It certainly made a change from “oh, are you hooligans?” which we were much more used to hearing… but more than that, it made a change from the indifference with which the majority of Chinese treated us (with certain notable exceptions, of course).

I’m thinking too of the Kashgar youth team who will never play for China, the Tibetan monks who are banned from playing football at all, Chinese television’s habit of showing only those matches in which Chinese teams or individuals are victorious, and now the news that Chinese students who watched the Costa Rica match were kept under close surveillance in case the mood became charged with political resentment after their defeat, and their demand to the South Korean police that supporters not be allowed to unfurl any banners during the game… these memories all pointed to one thing – that closed societies fear football and sport in general because they are unpredictable.

Totalitarian regimes can only get away with discrimination, repression and human rights abuses as long as they have absolute control. Broadcasting live sport breaks that control, if only for a moment… and the consequences of that openness are as unpredictable as the result on the field of play.

I’m generalising here, I know, but but but… Korea, it seems to me, is opening up to the rest of the world – it seems to be moving from an inwardly-focussed society to one in which people recognise that they have a context among other nations. And I suppose that is a part of what the World Cup is about – that in the process of hosting an international event, a rarely visited country’s people become exposed to different cultures. And to the recognition that living with difference is ok.

Spotlights illuminate the crowd in Seoul
Shine a light on me

So I’d just like to applaud Korea for the risks it has taken in staging this event, and look forward to the Olympic cultural earthquake that China will be staging in 2008. I also look forward to the China v. Brazil game we’re going to see in Seogwipo tomorrow… ole ole ole ole!

O Sport you are World Peace indeed.

Written by on Friday, June 7th, 2002

1 comment on this post

  1. I hope Pat Nevin didn’t give you boys any financial advice.

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The Ball 2018 left England on 25th March 2018 and travelled to the World Cup in Russia.

The Ball 2014 kicked off from England on 9th Jan 2014 and headed to the World Cup in Brazil.

The Ball 2010 left England on 24th Jan 2010 headed to the Opening Ceremony in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The Ball 2006 travelled from London to the Opening Ceremony in Munich, Germany.

The Ball 2002 was carried 7000 miles across Europe and Asia to the World Cup finals in Korea & Japan.