More articles by Leonid A.Petrov
By Leonid Petrov, The Korea Times (17 May 2005)
The recent riot at the Kim Il-sung Stadium in Pyongyang cost North Korea and its soccer fans dearly. During the game against Iran, angry North Korean players shoved the referee. Disappointed fans hurled bottles and rocks on the field after their appeals for a penalty were turned down. Soldiers and the public security forces moved in to suppress the public unrest so uncharacteristic of this communist state.
After the game, the angry mob for two hours was preventing Iran's bus from leaving the stadium. The Stadium, which is believed to be sacred for every citizen, has been vandalized. The common belief that the public order in North Korea is fully controlled by the state has been shaken.
The final stage of the 2006 World Cup preliminary competition does look dramatic for North Korea. The DPRK Football Association will be fined by FIFA and the next "home game" will be moved from North Korea to be played on a neutral ground and behind closed doors. When FIFA Disciplinary Committee's decision was announced a month later, many named it unfair and cruel.
The currency-hungry state is forfeiting the equivalent of $16,800 in penalty. It will also lose hundreds of foreign guests and journalists who planned to visit Pyongyang on June 8, 2005, and miss the advantage over the rival team who are not accustomed to the artificial grass on the Kim Il-sung Stadium.
Indeed, is FIFA’s decision fair? The North Koreans believe it is not and blame the wrong refereeing by the Syrian referee and linesmen. They promised to lodge an appeal against the Disciplinary Committee’s decision for its alleged favoritism toward Japan but no action has been taken so far. The South Korean Football Association is now trying to help their North Korean colleagues to lodge such appeal. It is a noble move but would not it be better to help the DPRK Football Association understand the reasons why they are being penalized?
In handling this incident, one should not forget the FIFA’s motto of fair play. The Disciplinary Committee’s decision has been made with consideration of safety for players, coaching staff, audience, and the fairness of the game in general. The North Koreans have failed to provide the safe environment during the match against Iran, a friendly state which is often grouped with the DPRK for its nuclear ambitions. What should we expect from the game where both states are technically at war with each other? The issues of kidnappings, territorial dispute, and history books may easily overshadow the atmosphere of international sport festival.
Even the problem of ``neutral venue’’ for the future match is causing a conflict. Where North Koreans would accept China as the neutral host nation, it is unacceptable for Japan due to the wave of recent anti-Japanese sentiments there.
It is likely that the match will be played in Bangkok, Thailand. But North Koreans are not comfortable with this choice: in 1999 Thailand expelled six DPRK diplomats following a bungled refugee-kidnapping incident. Thailand’s hot and humid climate is another obstacle for the North Korean players who spent most time training in northeastern China.
Soccer matches between Korea and Japan are always sensational. They attract huge interest not only in the respective countries but also around the whole region. Bad sentiments about the former colonial order remain strong in the countries of East Asia and can be easily vented during the large-scale mass event.
In the circumstances where North Korea has minimal chances to progress through the qualification tournament, the last game against Japan, if played in Pyongyang, could easily turn into a fight which would have very little to do with sport but would be all about hatred and politics.
The football associations of North and South Korea should join their efforts in making the game enjoyable, fair, and safe for everyone. Negative sentiments associated with the turbulent history of the 20th century must be left behind the playground. This is what the North Koreans still have to learn and demonstrate by accepting FIFA's disciplinary decision. An extra credit will be given to them if they prevail and beat Japan on June 8 in Bangkok or elsewhere.