Halftime Sports

A Drop in the Bucket: North Korean Soccer

April 10, 2014

The 2010 South Africa World Cup featured excellent and dominant teams such as Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, and Uruguay… and teams like North Korea. The small Asian nation was in the World Cup for the first time since 1966 and, truthfully, was considered a bit of joke. At the same time there was a kind of fascination with how they would do. What happened next is something that has faded from memory.

When the team lost to Brazil in its first game by only one goal, it seemed a signal that this team could be a respectable opponent, much to the dismay of comedians everywhere.  The North Korean media had not live broadcasted games ever, to avoid any kind of embarrassment being seen by its people. However, after their solid performance against Brazil, they decided to change their policy and make the next game between Portugal and North Korea the first broadcasted game in its history.

It was only natural that North Korea lost 7-0 to Portugal. Almost as soon as the game was over, people began asking each other, half-jokingly, what would happen to the team. Kim-Jong Il wasn’t exactly known for his rational use of punishment, and it seemed likely that the players and coach would face some serious repercussions upon their return home. The players were ultimately faced with a public scolding by more than 400 people… and were then ordered to reprimand their coach, who was sentenced to hard labor.

But I don’t believe that’s why this team and situation merits a look back. Let’s imagine that the USA decided they could inspire our soccer team to get past their Group of Death by threatening them with public shaming. Or maybe even on a smaller scale, the next time a local team disappoints, the townspeople have them dragged out to Main Street and humiliate them. If this happened, would people joke about it, or would they instead protest the actions as being unnecessarily cruel? It’s completely unthinkable—and yet the same happened to these North Korean players. It’s faded from memory awfully fast.

Even in the moment, the level of callousness that people showed in their jokes and comments is unbelievable considering that these were players who were at the beck and call of a government known for its harshness. This does not mean that all political humor is necessarily callous—most people have chuckled at a Kim Jong Il joke before—but if the World Cup is to ostensibly bring us together, making jokes about a very real horrible fate may be a little much.

Ultimately, FIFA did condemn North Korea’s actions, so it would be too far to say the world stood by and watched as these soldiers were punished. However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the majority of the world callously joked about how sports players would be punished by this country for losing. I am still shocked that there were no protests of the treatment, and that North Korea has faced no real sanctions because of this in the international sporting world. Hopefully in the future, the public views international sports events such as the World Cup or the Olympics, as opportunities to come together as a world, and in the case of crisis support your fellow peoples.

Photo: Agencia Brasil/Wikipedia

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