[Viewepoint] Football: more than a game

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[Viewepoint] Football: more than a game

The Federation of International Football Association’s motto is “[Football is] more than just a game,” and it was proven once again during the selection of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosts on Dec. 2 in Zurich.

After Russia and Qatar were selected to host the 2018 and 2022 events, respectively, there’s still a sense of shock because the outcome was so unexpected.

That, however, is only a reflection of the losers’ view. England and Russia competed fiercely during the first round of the competition and Russia ended up winning nine votes while England got two.

The outcome shocked not only the British delegation, led by Prime Minister David Cameron and Prince William, but also the people of England, who have long been proud of being from the country where the game originated.

For them, the outcome was an incomprehensible turn of events. During the selection of the host for the 2022 game, many experts predicted that the United States would earn the most votes.

And yet, the first round of the voting showed that it only earned three votes, while Australia, expected to come in second, won only one vote, and they was dropped from the competition. Qatar earned 11 votes, just one vote shy of the majority, and most of the delegates appeared to be in shock.

Football columnist Rob Hughes pointed out that England was arrogant. Because of arrogance coming from an obsession with tradition, the country failed to understand the changes taking place in the world and the increased complexity of politics inside FIFA and the football community. England, therefore, engaged in a lackadaisical campaign.

Russia and Qatar, in contrast, both had a clear understanding about the change in power structure. From the perspective of the winners, their victories were not a surprise at all, but a natural outcome. The evolution of power in football and the supposed clash of civilizations were, to them, noting more than losers’ excuses.

Globalization has progressed speedily in the two decades since the end of the Cold War. It created a new global society and a driving force not only for the economy but also politics, society and culture. Football could never be an exception in this giant wave of globalization.

Football, which is enjoyed by people all over the world, became part of the information revolution with the airing of matches on television screens at home and in public places, with corporate sponsorships and a lot of money involved.

Football is now something more than just a sport: it’s a political, economic, social and cultural phenomenon.

FIFA has reacted to these phenomenal changes, and the World Cup has become the most lucrative sports event in the world. In fact, the recent selection process is a carefully created product of FIFA, particularly its chairman Sepp Blatter.

For sports diplomacy in a polarized 21st century, strong leadership was a must, and that fact was reaffirmed during the recent selection process. An absolute monarch, Qatar’s Emir, personally stepped in for the country’s campaign to host the World Cup, uniting the Muslim world.

Furthermore, he highlighted the issue of Middle East peace and successfully persuaded the world that Arab society is now moving beyond its past religious practices and joining cultural globalization. Perhaps that’s why the red dress of Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned, the emir’s second wife who accompanied him on stage after the country’s victory was confirmed, appeared to signify modernism.

The leadership of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the former president of the country, is also renowned. After the end of the Soviet Union, Russia was adrift, but Putin’s leadership made clear that the country was going to remain a superpower.

Putin’s ability in sports diplomacy has already been proven with the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, and he once again proved his dramatic capabilities. Putin canceled his participation in Russia’s presentation the day before it was made, saying he wanted to avoid any suspicion that he was exerting unnecessary pressure on the FIFA representatives. Then he showed up grandly in Zurich shortly after Russia’s victory was confirmed and held a dramatic press conference.

Qatar’s Emir and Russia’s Putin also had enormous financial resources in addition to their power, and that also contributed greatly to the two countries’ success. In contrast, the weakness of sports diplomacy from a democratic society was clearly revealed, and concerns about the situation followed.

Korea had two dreams and fought well. The first was to hold the World Cup by itself in 2022 to recreate its advancement to the semifinals in 2002. Second was to use the 2022 Korea World Cup as a doorway to unification.

Shortly before the voting, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island and any hope to cooperate with Japan ended in failure. With such misfortune, Korea’s dream came to an end for the time being.

And yet, we can never give up our dream for unification. The Korean people are captivated by football because we believe in opening up the goalpost of unification with all our best efforts.

And the tide of history is encouraging us.

*The writer is a former prime minister and advisor to the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Hong-koo
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