FIFA’s decision cuts off sports diplomacy with NorthThis time FIFA really blew it. Not that it’s the first time. It is short sighted for the organization to stand by its earlier decision and order North Korea to play its next World Cup qualifying match in a neutral venue behind closed doors. FIFA based its decision on an incident in an earlier game against Iran in Pyongyang where North Korean players bumped the referee, and the crowd threw bottles and chairs on the field.
Make no mistake, I am not siding with my northern brethren because we share the same bloodlines. Nor do I harbor any cozy feelings for those who have threatened to engulf Seoul in a sea of fire. When occasionally South and North people join together and sing “Our wish is unification,” I don’t have any illusions about it but, that said, Pyongyang deserves another chance.
Instead of punishing the country as a whole, the world’s governing soccer body could have taken a more subtle approach. For instance, it could have dealt a 10-game suspension to those North Korean players who bumped the referee while protesting a call.
Instead of playing the game at a neutral venue, FIFA could have also just issued a warning with a fine. Instead, it decided to move the game (still behind closed doors) along with a fine. Why not ask for an official apology by the North? Any combination of penalties out of a dozen possibilities could have included fines and player suspensions but avoided such a strident decision.
Franz Beckenbauer, head of Germany’s 2006 World Cup Committee said that FIFA is “maybe overreacting.” I think so too. Even if Japan that had asked FIFA to move the game, fearing for its players’ safety, expressed surprise at the harsh punishment though they gladly accepted the decision.
This was an opportunity to use sports to lure one of the most closed societies on earth onto the world stage and shed some light onto it.
To say that FIFA’s decision was not influenced by the Japan Football Association is an understatement. While relations between Pyongyang and Tokyo are at best cold over past abductions of Japanese citizens and the world is worrying about the North Korean nuclear crisis, anything that could somehow connect Pyongyang to the outside world would help.
True, North Korea is a police state that Stalin would have dreamed off but “contact” is the key word here.
The North Korean players are said to have been lavished with cars and apartments by Pyongyang to deliver an appearance at the 2006 World Cup to their country.
Their chances are slim. Let’s assume the North fails to qualify this time. Could it not be that someone in the North who will decide to seek some aid to raise the country’s soccer playing skills?
Cooperation with the outside world on this issue, or for that matter with any issue, could have opened up so many other avenues. I know that’s a big “if,” but when everything has failed, what harm does it do to try something else? Now, with hard feelings towards FIFA, another opportunity to bring change to the North is lost.
As it is, a political decision has just made things worse. But that’s nothing new I guess.
by Brian Lee
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