Sometimes it’s just a gameThe rivalry between South Korea and Japan in football has always been heated. The public’s passionate support for the national team when it plays against its Japanese rivals generally goes beyond the usual pitch of emotion. Housewives and people who are mostly not very interested in sports tune into the matches between the two teams. Public sentiment on both sides of the East Sea often becomes touchy or strained depending on the political and social mood of the times. The Sunday night match of the East Asia soccer championship at the Olympic Stadium in southern Seoul took place during a spike of animosity between the two countries.
The game delivered a 2-1 victory for the visiting team and Japan walked away with the winning trophy for the tournament, which also included Australia and China. But off-field drama continued after Japanese football authorities and media raised a hoopla over an oversized banner in the stands that read “A nation that forgets history has no future!” The banner was held up by the South Korean team’s hard-core fan club, the Red Devils, in protest of a recent series of comments made by nationalist politicians in Japan who denied Japan’s military aggression and inhuman behavior during World War II.
The Japanese complained that the display violated FIFA rules that prohibit political slogans in international games.
We may argue that the banner is not politically incorrect, but that’s purely our perspective. The quote is famous and comes from our nationalist historian Shin Chae-ho. We should heed the advice from the country’s most famous historian and apply it to reawaken ourselves - not to fuel antagonism on the football field. After all, that could inflame the people of a race that has repeatedly been criticized for being oblivious to their infamous past. How can one enjoy a sports game in such a heavy atmosphere of historical tension? Japan and the Korean Football Association have a point in saying that the banner had no place at the sporting event. It was removed during half-time.
The association is now being bombarded by criticism from local fans who accuse it of being cowardly and caving in to Japan’s pressure. The Red Devils, which left the stadium or kept conspicuously silent during the rest of the game in protest of the order to remove the banner, also came under fire. The hard-core fans’ nationalism is understandable, but their action could have demoralized the players on the field. We cannot help but surmise that lackluster cheering could have influenced the players. But we have to ask the fan group if it somehow surrendered genuine passion and love of the game to the power of collective assertiveness.
Politicians have also piled onto the controversy. One opposition member of the National Assembly’s committee on sports lambasted the Korean Football Association for being two-faced, cowardly and too harsh on the local fan group. He vowed to raise the issue in parliament.
But is the fault entirely ours? A Japanese cheerleading squad held up the Rising Sun flag, which is still remembered by Koreans and other Asian countries as a symbol of Japan’s imperialist days. The Japanese always ask what’s wrong about waving their own flag. They should know very well by now: The flag is a painful reminder of Japan’s cruel, imperialist past and carries political implications for Asian countries that still bear bitter memories and feelings toward Japan, especially over its lack of contrition for its militarist past. Why did they wave a former flag symbolizing the imperialist past when they have their current national flag?
After the game, Japanese Web sites were crowded with insulting comments toward Koreans, calling them “people with low self-esteem and guile.” The extreme right-wing group may have been tempted to rub salt into Korean people’s wounds in the triumph of winning the championship. But we are disappointed at the low level of their intelligence and expressions of their feelings. Getting into fight with people like that only pulls us down to their level. We should ignore them.
It is time we find our composure. We should free ourselves from the psychological idea that we can lose to anyone but Japan. Nor do we need this knee-jerk nationalistic fervor against the Japanese or displays of national pride whenever the chance arises. We may still be obsessed with the pain of our colonial past. Emotions can overwhelm reason and we may not be able to fully accept defeat. But we can win next time if we but calmly re-examine what made us lose this time. We’re almost guaranteed to lose again if we let emotions dominate our thinking.
Let’s not put all of the burden on our coaches and young athletes. We must let them demonstrate their physical skills - and enjoy the game - without undue pressure over the results of their games. Sports can never be a pleasant experience for those who play or watch if the event has some kind of desperation underpinning it. The Japanese coach hit the nail on the head when he said that the Korean team lost a sense of balance because it was too eager to win.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Nam Yoon-ho