March 16, 2017 10:00 am JST
Tea Leaves

When politics get ugly, the beautiful game can help

Sporting bonhomie obscures diplomatic tensions in Asian soccer stadiums

JOHN DUERDEN

North Korea's Mun In Guk, left, and South Korea's Lee Young-pyo battle for the ball in a World Cup qualifier in Shanghai in March 2008. © AP

It was March 2008 and relations between the two Koreas were not exactly great. Yet, as I emerged from the Shanghai subway to arrive at Hongkou Football Stadium, there was something in the air -- and not just the smell wafting from the hot-pot restaurants nearby.

Groups of soccer fans, carrying flags from each side of the 38th parallel dividing the Korean Peninsula, swept toward each other. It could have been an ugly moment. Yet instead of tension or aggression, there was warmth and smiles.

North and South Korea were playing a vital qualification match for the 2010 World Cup. The game was to take place in Pyongyang, but then-leader Kim Jong Il was not about to allow South Korea's Taegukgi national flag fly over Kim Il Sung Stadium or let its national anthem, the Aegukga, ring around the capital.

So the big game was moved to Shanghai. I had arranged to sit with the Red Devils, one of South Korea's most prominent fan groups, and report the experience for a South Korean magazine. A news wire agency had separately asked me to have my phone ready, in case "anything happened."

Unlike in my native England, there was barely a pregame beer to be seen outside the stadium. Instead, we sat on the concrete floor and ate rice, kimchi and bulgogi from plastic foam containers.

South Korea was the favorite, having seven previous World Cup appearances to the North's one. The team also had Asia's biggest star, Park Ji-sung, who was in the process of helping English powerhouse Manchester United become European champion.

The South had an additional advantage. Despite this officially being a home game for North Korea, its fans were outnumbered by at least 10 to one in a crowd of over 20,000. There was a group of white-clad supporters cheering on the hosts, some interested Chinese spectators and lots of South Korean fans, who had traveled from home or were taking time off from their studies in Shanghai to support their national team.

The atmosphere was much better than the game. With so much at stake, intra-Korean derbies are almost always turgid affairs, and this one ended a flat 0-0.

MUTUAL RESPECT The media got its story in the end. At the final whistle, the players shook hands and the North team returned to the locker room. But South Korea stayed back, as some players bowed to the fans from Pyongyang. The applause they received in return was heartfelt and prolonged. There was barely a dry eye in the house and the next day, Chinese journalists were talking wistfully of playing a similar game with Taiwan.

In a subsequent game in Seoul in 2009, South Korea won, with North Korean coach Kim Jong Hun accusing the hosts of poisoning his best players. That allegation triggered controversy, but Kim was much happier later in the year, when South Korea's Park Ji-sung scored against Iran, enabling the North to qualify for its first World Cup in 44 years.

North Korean striker Jong Tae Se said Park's goal was instrumental in getting his team to the World Cup. Soon after that, the pair appeared in a television commercial together. Fans in the South were happy to see their neighbors qualify for the 2010 World Cup and cheered the team on at the tournament in South Africa. There was palpable pride that the Korean Peninsula was sending two teams to the world's biggest sporting event.

This all came back to me eight seasons later. With North Korea due to host Malaysia on March 28 for a qualifying match for the 2019 Asian Cup, soccer now has another perfect opportunity to bring people a little closer together.

North Korea and Malaysia have severed diplomatic relations due to the fallout surrounding the Feb. 13 murder of Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in Kuala Lumpur. With Pyongyang forbidding Malaysians who reside in North Korea to leave -- a move swiftly mirrored by the Malaysian government, which also ordered the national team not to travel -- the game became an issue.

The Asian Football Confederation, which oversees soccer on the continent, decided on March 10 to postpone it.

Whenever and wherever it goes ahead, if there can be something of the spirit shown eight years ago -- when North Korea played a home match abroad against an opponent with whom it did not have diplomatic relations -- maybe soccer can make a small difference again.

The world's most popular game has a way of breaking down barriers and bringing people closer together. I saw it in Shanghai on a special night and it can happen again.

John Duerden has lived in Asia and observed Asian soccer for almost 20 years.

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