Democracy, economics and the World Cup

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Democracy, economics and the World Cup

It is true that I had my initial doubts in the late spring of 1993 when the Korea Football Association's president, Chung Mong-jun, revealed his impossible dream of bidding to host the 2002 World Cup. But then again, it was an era in which we had become used to seeing impossible dreams come true. The Korean people's dream of democracy came true with the 1987 announcement of direct presidential elections. In the summer of 1988, the Seoul Olympics were hosted by the capital of a divided country, showing the world how to reconcile East and West. A year after the Seoul Olympics, in 1989, the world watched as the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was reunified.

So we jumped fearlessly into our bid to host the World Cup. Of course our bid met with numerous obstacles along the way, and I must say that unexpected turns of fortune helped us over many of these obstacles. One particular turn that I still remember vividly involved Argentina.

As any soccer fan knows, Argentina and Brazil are the two giants of South American soccer. Along with their athletic prowess on the field, the two countries carry considerable weight in the affairs of FIFA, the ruling world soccer body -- a fact that Mr. Chung and I were only too well aware of. It was most unfortunate for us that FIFA's Brazilian-born president, Joao Havelange, supported Japan, our biggest rival.

Mr. Chung and I visited Argentina's President Carlos Menem in the spring of 1994. I was forthright with the president. "Brazil supports Japan and naturally we've come to Argentina, Mr. President." Mr. Menem nodded and said, "That makes sense."

He then invited us for a weekend at his hometown in the Andes mountains; the visit to his ranch warmed our hearts -- and the ample sampling of the president's very own brand of wine, named "Menem," added to the good cheer surrounding the visit.

This Argentina to which I am personally grateful met near-bankruptcy last year after years of economic instability and social unrest. With fond memories of my meeting with President Menem, I cannot help wishing that it will be the Argentine team taking the World Cup back to their people at the end of June. That would be some soothing comfort for the insecurity and rage that the Argentine people must be feeling now.

Argentina is not alone in its insecurity. I had a chance to exchange with several former South American presidents in Madrid last week our views on the hardships other countries have faced in the process of democratization. The South Americans were all speaking in unison when they expressed their concern over the serious crisis that South American democracy has met, Argentina and Venezuela being the two exemplary cases.

Their common concern was not economic growth or the realization of social justice. Rather, the leaders expressed their opinion that their countries needed to solve a more fundamental problem of the "crisis of governance," of how to lead a democratic country to stability.

The former presidents' diagnosis of democracy in crisis contained elements that we ourselves could relate to. The biggest barrier to democratization, they said, was the failures of the political parties and the national parliament. The power vacuum created by the lack of an efficient parliament made people yearn for strong leaders, while strong leaders in many cases brought about further deterioration of the parliamentary system. Too many hungry people have fallen easy prey to a devil's pact and traded in their freedom for what they thought was an escape from poverty and social inequality.

Ever since the successful transformation of Spain into a democracy after the fall of General Franco in 1975 and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, more than 100 countries have joined those on the path to democracy. The meeting held in Madrid May 13 by several leaders of countries led to the birth of the Madrid Club, a cooperative entity in which members would help one another in their mutual efforts toward planting democracy in their countries.

Even the Madrid Club was not immune to the excitement over the 2002 World Cup. King Juan Carlos of Spain, it must be said, betrayed a keener interest in the Korean soccer team than in the Korean economy or politics.

The world seemed oblivious to our bitter political fights. It also seemed to think more highly of our economy, politics and our national soccer team than perhaps we deserved. Perhaps that is because of our image as a people who always make their impossible dreams somehow come true.

We should not let the full significance of this World Cup escape us. The World Cup isn't a mere soccer festival. It is our chance to start anew, to wash away the backwardness of our politics and to keep on dreaming.

by Lee Hong-koo

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