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Destination: South Africa
Posted by John Brewin on 06/16/2010

Political feelings were never far from the surface © Getty Images

As you may have read on Tuesday, I was rather taken by the performance of North Korea in frustrating Brazil for long periods at Ellis Park. Due to the oversubscription that always follows any match involving Brazil at a major tournament, I found myself relegated to the subs' bench of the media tribune, among a group of photographers and some other disgruntled journalists.

Perhaps partly mindful of the fact that Brazilian progress may harm our chances of being able to attend the latter stages, I found myself as part of an impromptu coterie of enthusiastic supporters of the Democratic People's Republic. One of the photographers, an English veteran of many a sports event - his last visit to Ellis Park had been the Rugby World Cup Final in 1995 - echoed my own thoughts when saying, "Good little side, aren't they?". My new friend had used the type of cooing vernacular one would use for the FA Cup visit of a lower division to a Premier League giant. As Brazilian efforts waned against the brickwall defence of the Koreans we began to openly wonder if we were to witness history.

There was to be no fairytale, just the handing of immense credit to the mystery men. And for the Brazilians, a rare night when they were not the centre of attention and were even the bad guys in the eyes of many.

Yet to suggest the North Koreans were the 'goodies' is to enter a moral maze. Does one support them because we love a plucky underdog, to coin a patronising cliche? Or do we consider what they represent? The pre-match conference by coach Kim Jong-Hun should have provided a note of considerable caution in its obstinate deflection of any question deemed to be political. So too this answer: "If they win the game, they will bring great happiness to our great leader."

Among the little that is known about life in the country known as "Chosun" to its people is that the vast majority of the population are starving and oppressed under the aegis of a leader in Kim Jong-Il whose best-known policy is the constant threat of nuclear attack on "Nam Chosun" - or South Korea to you and me. Those Koreans playing in Johannesburg on Tuesday did not reveal symptoms of malnutrition or disquiet with their lot - witness the pre-match swell of emotion by star man Jong Tae-Se - and would seem highly likely to be receiving special treatment. After all, a good performance on the international stage can only serve as great propaganda for their despotic leader.

So, in narrow defeat, a political coup has already been landed, and that rather takes away from the satisfaction of seeing probably the best match of the tournament so far. While many would be happy to suggest that politics have no part in football, Kim Jong-Il himself seemed hell-bent on making it so by cutting off the TV signal unless his team won.

That is not to paint Brazil as the white knights either. The seleção are one of the most rapacious money-making machines in football, their association with a certain sportswear manufacturer long casting questions about their practices. See also their football association's hawking of their team's wares to the highest bidder with that recent friendly in Zimbabwe serving as hugely unwelcome publicity for none other than Robert Mugabe.

The easy way, as so often plumped for in other spheres of life, is to concentrate on the football itself. Yet to do so would be to allow the agendas of others less interested in, to coin a FIFA phrase, "the good of the game" to use the greatest stage to further their own questionable ends. A World Cup simply cannot operate outside due deference to the acceptable parameters of the rest of human life.


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