Benin’s stadium: Korea would do it for the NorthWhen national soccer games are on, the whole nation is glued to the tube. When the Olympics are on, the Blue House’s secret bunker with its war room takes a rest and the president with his cabinet watch the games. The Grand National Party can wait.
This is happening in a country that has the 10th largest economy in the world, and it’s a phenomenon that is similar in other countries around the world. Africa, which has emerged as a unique source of soccer powerhouses bringing us interesting World Cup surprises, shares in the thrill of soccer. Fans have become accustomed to watch with awe the thrilling way African teams play the game.
Then there is Benin. Once a French colony that became independent in 1960 and then saw a succession of military dictators, Benin is now a democracy. But its GDP per capita is $1,100, and its people are trying to get survive at the brink of poverty.
Africa is not exactly a prime location for Seoul to focus its diplomatic efforts. It wasn’t until recently that Seoul pledged to open its coffers and help the continent economically.
Just last week, South Korea reaffirmed its pledge to triple its aid funds for Africa by 2008 compared with spending in 2005. That meant Korea granted a total of $36 million during visits here by several African leaders.
The first pledge came at a time when the former foreign minister, Ban Ki-moon, was about to make a bid for the secretary general post at the United Nations. Some critics accused Seoul of having bought the UN secretary general’s seat. The German newspaper Der Spiegel went so far as to say that this was no surprise, because bribery in Korean politics is a very common thing.
Whatever the truth, not included in those plans was the construction of sports facilities. But now Benin’s President Thomas Boni Yayi has asked President Roh Moo-hyun to help him build a soccer stadium. Many African leaders have asked Seoul for aid in building up the infrastructure of their countries, but the Beninese president chose to ask for something different. According to officials, he told Mr. Roh that soccer was the most popular sport in his country and that he wanted to give hope to the youth of the country. The Beninese foreign minister, who came in September and met with Ban Ki-moon, made a similar request. A Korean government official called the request “very sincere.”
No decision has been made. The official said that everything was pretty much up in the air regarding the issue. Obviously there are obstacles: where the money would come from is one, and the fact that the construction would probably have to be done by a South Korean company if we are talking about a decent stadium and not just a varsity grass field.
There will be bureaucratic red tape, no doubt, but a stadium is something that can last for a lifetime. It’s something that will be actually remembered by a whole nation. If there is a day when a great Beninese player makes it playing in Europe, imagine him saying that he learned how to play at that very stadium. “By the way, that stadium was courtesy of South Korea.” That would indeed be something, but let’s not make bragging rights the main issue.
When people are in hardship, there is often little relief. But this stadium can bring it. I truly believe this. Had Pyongyang been asking for one [they already got a basketball stadium courtesy of Seoul] this would not be a matter to waste time on. So why should it be this time?