[INSIGHT]More important than life or death

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[INSIGHT]More important than life or death

I did not understand that soccer was any of my business until I read an official document from a school authority advising that each professor use his discretion about classes on the day of World Cup games. The authorities were evidently a bit ashamed -- such a stupid thing -- to ask for classes to be canceled on game days. They used words like "events on a nationwide level," "successful games," "cooperate with a positive view of life," etc. I hesitated to decide which is better, classes or patriotism.

Come to think of it, I also have succumbed to World Cup stupidity. When I watched the match between Germany and the Netherlands in 1974, I got extremely excited. Johann Cruyff, the captain of the Dutch team, put his "guerrilla squad" in orange shirts in Munich and directed operations. And Franz Beckenbauer, the operational staff of German "armored forces" saved the nation with careful counterattacks, which allowed no margin for error.

The Dutch team, which felt sorry that its Queen Juliana was not in attendance, got lucky at first. It was awarded a penalty kick just one minute after the game started. It was a dangerous call by the referee. His whistle could have been lethal to a patient with high blood pressure or chest pains. The referee must have been a man of courage. But I was more impressed with the way Beckenbauer kept his cool. He soothed his furious teammates. The German team scored on a lucky penalty kick with 26 minutes gone in the first half. Another penalty kick was undesirable, but the Dutch team was able to avoid the accusation that Germany had fought against 12 players including the referee. In any soccer match, of course, the losers are beaten by the referee, while the winners prevail in spite of the referee. Victory fell to the Germans after another goal just before the end of first half. It remains much more clearly in my memory that the German team won the fair play trophy than that it won the Jules Rimet Cup.

People may not think that fair play matters much in soccer, but it is important. If rugby is the sport played by gentleman in barbarous fashion, soccer is the game played by barbarians in gentlemanly fashion. I heard of a "gentleman" who kicked the ball at the face of a goalkeeper for penalty kick and asked for it not to count, even if he scored.

The main culprits, corrupting the gentleman's code into barbarism, are money and politics. Borrowing an expression from the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galleano, Joao Havelange, who seized the post of FIFA president by trickery in 1974, spat out without a hitch: "I came here to sell the product called football." One of his close friends, Juan Antonio Samaranch, similarly brought the mercenary spirit to the Inter-national Olympic Committee. In the 1998 World Cup in France, Adidas was the advertising winner with Zinedine Zidane of France. Nike's return on all the money it invested was a picture of Ronaldo of second-best Brazil looking displeased. The players followed not the ball but the money and they became not players but employees of the team.

"Bread and circuses" was the satirical comment of the Roman poet Juvenal. We so often get the circus instead of the bread. If the poet's warning, that we should not lose sight of the importance of politics because of circuses, is valid, my contention that we should not forget politics because of soccer is also effective.

About former U.S. President Gerald Ford's erratic decisions, his predecessor Lyndon Johnson gibed: "He played too much football without a helmet." I don't know whether players wear helmets in American football, but it is certainly true that we need helmets to play politics. Around here, there is plenty of politics and there are politicians without helmets. The Guardian, the British daily newspaper, selected this as the saying of the year in 1973: "Some people think that football is a matter of life and death. I can guarantee them that football is a much more important matter than life and death."

When we buy tickets for a soccer game, we feel patriotism, which is more important than life and death. And strain and excitement follow it as a bonus. Reporters could as easily be war correspondents as sports reporters. A man who said he hoped for the French team to win its friendly match with South Korea last month had this excuse for his betrayal: "When the Korean team tied England, people thought that we would make the last 16 easily. And if we defeat France, people will believe that we can make the last eight or four or win the FIFA World Cup. In this situation, if the Korean team fails to make the last 16, people will demand that coach Guus Hiddink and his team be crucified."

Oh my Lord, may we be spared this cross and let it just be soccer. Amen.


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The Writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Joseph W. Chung

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