The Mating Calls of Modern Authoritarian Sovereigns
It will be no surprise to regular finem respice readers that athletic diversions play only the most tangential role in these pages (or their predecessors). Short of a somewhat pathological affinity for the Chicago Cubs- who can, after all, fail to indulge in a smarmy sort of appreciation for the unusual brand of mediocrity that permits a team to play 49.80% ball since 1908 (7835-7899), make so many postseason appearances in the same period and still somehow fail to win a World Series championship in over 102 years,1 a streak so long that it not only exceeds that of any other professional sports team in the United States, but also predates the very existence of the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and the National Football League- great (or infamous) athletic endeavors play little part in the behind the scenes ruminations that shape the prose here. Despite this, it is simply impossible to permit North Korea's World Cup appearance to pass without comment.
As one of the last, desperate, hacking coughs ripped out among a long series of dying gasps emanating from the hospital ward where the world keeps its terminal command and control economy test subjects, North Korea is shaped by strange and (to those citizens, and not a few subjects of the world without a "Dear Leader") utterly foreign motivations. The dynamics of and the stakes for North Korea in international sporting competitions like this are dramatically different than for the rest of the planet. The public spectacle and ritual (not to mention the crowds) that accompany large-scale, international sporting events tap directly into the psyche of authoritarian regimes. The global, nationalistic sporting competition is the modern authoritarian mating call.
Certainly, significant amounts of man hours and treasure are poured into major but "merely" national sporting events like the Super Bowl, the World (no snickering, please) Series and the NBA Finals (and not always at a profit either), but these still lack the depth of urgency and the deeply ingrained role of national pride (and, indeed, potentially dangerous nationalism) that what one might call "international showcase" events tend to stimulate. Collecting athletes from around the world to play, for instance, Tennis, does not attract the rapt attention of communist regimes. Nor does the America's Cup attract much of the same sort of interest- though in both of these cases there may be cultural impediments that co-dominate. It is not the opportunity to test oneself against the best the world has to offer that triggers these urgent pangs of national glory. It is pomp and circumstance. It is the frenzy of an unbridled crowd in the service of nationalism. It is the ecstasy of hero worship. Simply put, it is the show.
For a flagging nation desperate to garner otherwise unobtainable international reverence (or perhaps merely notice), such events are appealing adventures. Surely, this played no small part in the decision by the Romans to put an end to the Olympic games and instead make public entertainment of feeding undesirables to wild beasts, or watching professionals hack each other to pieces with edged weapons. Today the resultant 1500 year lull in the Olympics fills one with nostalgia for a bit of the public hacking of foreigners, particularly in the face of bribery scandals involving a throng of hopeful city petitioners, all desperate to kiss the ring of the International Olympic Committee, doping by athletes, and the 1992 decision to alternate the summer and winter games every two years, rendering it impossible to escape the near constant background hiss of the games, along with ceaseless announcements by/of its many sponsors and official product lines, no matter what country you are in.
Although it is difficult to envisage sacrificing the simply poetic image presented by photographs of the sprawling crowds in Chicago captured in the moment of learning they had been eliminated (in the very first round) from contention as a potential host city for the 2016 Olympics, despite an orgy of the aforementioned ring kissing by the dream team of Oprah, Obama and Michelle, but one is prompted to wonder what OIC members would look like fighting for their lives in thraex attire.
Given this bit of context, it becomes easy to discern something of the nature of the deep-seated drama that characterized the Moscow and Beijing Olympics and recognize them as signs of these maladies. So too, one quickly notices, the import (and distasteful showcase) on display in Berlin in 1936. Certainly, profit is shallow motive here. Most Olympics are deeply expensive for the hosting city/country. They are at least partly to blame, for instance, for Greece's current debt morass.
It has only recently become fashionable to remember North Korea's earlier appearance in the World Cup, partly because it was all the way back in 1966. Only a strange set of circumstances, including the reservation of but a single slot for all of Africa, Oceania and Asia for a shot at World Cup qualification and the attendant African boycott, led North Korea to play in 1966. Given that chance, and the attendant, reflected glow of publicity available to North Korea by virtue of the many spotlights trained on the World Cup, North Korea's Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, personally asked the team to win "one or two matches" during the event. They complied gleefully, defeating Italy, no soccer slouch, 1-0 in the first round to find themselves, shocked as anyone, in the Quarterfinals.
One imagines that a certain geopolitical naivete played some part in the sensational North Korea fever that gripped Britain after the team's Italian victory. (For comparison, the Italian players were assaulted with eggs and rotten produce on their return home and to this day major disasters for the team are termed "another Korea.") Middlesbrough's residents, prodded by the welcoming and televised example set by the Jack Boothby, the mayor of Middlesbrough, adopted the team to such an extent that it was difficult to look about anywhere in the town without finding several North Korean flags in evidence.
Britain's foreign office had been keenly aware of the potential political and diplomatic impact hosting North Korea (which was not recognized as a sovereign following the Korean War) might have. The symbolic power of permitting the flag-waving and anthem-playing that are routine rituals in the World Cup worried the Foreign Office immensely, not least because it was feared that such official sanction could set a precedent requiring similar treatment for East Germany, a foe of far more caustic ideological and geopolitical conflict for England at the time.
A confidential memo from the Foreign Office penned after it became obvious that North Korea would advance artfully paints the picture of surprise that gripped the diplomats even before the North Koreans arrived:
Thoughtlessly, in view of the above minutes, the North Koreans have beaten the Australians by an aggregate of 9-2 in the final of their regional qualifying series. This means that the North Koreans have now qualified for the final series which will take place in this country beginning in July next year.
Another memo grappled with the need to deal with the West Germans, who were concerned that the United Kingdom would recognize (even inadvertently) the East:
In speaking with the Germans we could point out that we had tried very hard to prevent North Korean flags from being flown, but had met with insuperable opposition in this and we had agreed most reluctantly to the flying of flags. To do otherwise would have caused a major international rumpus in the football world. We should also stress that this does not provide a precedent for East Germany.
At the risk of seeming inordinately British, one simply cannot but yearn for the opportunity to use the word "rumpus" and "insuperable" together and so effortlessly in diplomatic memorandum- even if it means returning to the 1960s. Of course, one also suspects that FIFA's threat to move the matches somewhere else may have played a part in the decision.
The average height of North Korea's team in 1966 was just 5'3", in 2010 the team has managed to field a 5'9" average player (though this figure is skewed by the presence of, for instance, 6 foot tall Jong Tae-se, born and raised in Japan to South Korean parents- and there is a Thanksgiving dinner one would like to be a fly on the wall for), narrowly avoiding the distinction of "shortest team" owing to Chile's 5'8" average- but still nearly two and a half inches shorter than the South Korean team. North Korea entered The Cup a 2000:1 underdog, again, avoiding a host of negative superlatives thanks this time to New Zealand's 2500:1 line.2 North Korea entered the fray at 1000:1 in 1966.
North Korea's victory conditions do not necessarily include taking home the cup. Indeed, in some sense their appearance at all has already handed their sovereign a decisive win. It is one of the few teams, for instance, almost entirely composed of natives. For comparison, Portugal, which North Korea will face this afternoon in South Africa, is fielding a team that is less than 50% Portuguese.
In this sense it is possible to see the North Korean team's appearance as a not-entirely-so-subtle mandate on the country's social, political and perhaps even genetic prowess. Indeed, the narrative that victory or defeat in these instances is critical to authoritarian regimes gave wind to the sails of rumors that the North Korean team had been imprisoned after the 1966 match for drinking and womanizing after their victory against Italy. The North Korean team denies these suggestions to a man. Similar rumors surrounding the Iraqi team's fate in 1997 appear far more credible.
Without a doubt, the members of the North Korean team occupy a rarified and privileged class in North Korea. After the traditional jersey swapping ritual following North Korea's defeat at the hands of Brazil, the carved physique of Ji Yun-Nam apparently prompted the South Korean media to coin the nickname "The Peoples' Six-Pack," an oddly playful bit of press given the contrast it should expose between the nutritional opportunities given the national soccer team and what amount to starvation rations for the rest of North Korea. The players of the 1966 team wept openly when asked in 2002 about the death of the Great Leader by the BBC, reminding, one hopes, everyone that, likable as the team may have been, they are still the victims of no small amount of personality cult indoctrination.
It becomes quite easy to find opposition to permitting such countries to participate in international sporting events. (Prize money of $9 million for the round of 16 and $18 million for the Quarterfinals would seem to alienate the spirit of sanctions against North Korea as well, particularly after the apparent detonation last night of a nuclear device by the rogue nation). After all, to permit them such exposure is to give a platform for brutal, savage regimes and, in some sense, legitimizes them. But it takes only the most cursory reflection on these sorts of Foreign Office quibbles to realize that one can support the [Troops|Players] without supporting the [War|Sovereign]. It helps to know that not a single fan was permitted to travel to South Africa and, because of tensions with the South, radio broadcasts of the World Cup that would otherwise have been relayed into the North are blocked this year. Unlike in 1966, North Koreans will be unable to follow the match on radio this time.
But all the foregoing quickly melts into a pool of irrelevance when one views pictures of the 1966 team, adorned to the last man and almost literally head-to-toe in medals and order badges. That these players might have risen so readily in the North Korean ranks while still possessed of fond memories of their pick-up British fans, and the warm welcome they enjoyed in Middlesbrough and Liverpool both, gives one at least the hope that such exchanges may moderate an otherwise desperate and bellicose regime, or at least its successor.
True, there is probably little to gain by assuring that the North Korean soccer team feel a warm South African welcome, but, be this as it may, finem respice will still happily bear North Korea's standard and cheer her players 60 minutes from now- even if only in a sort of mathematic sympathy for the kind of symmetry in the universe a North Korean victory against Portugal, who vanquished them in the Quarterfinals 44 years ago by coming back from a 3-0 deficit accumulated in only the first 25 minutes, would evidence. (Not to mention that cheering them in public is bound to seriously irritate the Portuguese).
Update: North Korea fell to Portugal 7-0 in the biggest World Cup rout yet this year.
- 1. A 33.70% lifetime post-season record takes a particular kind of talent.
- 2. "FIFA World Cup 2010: Serbia Tops Tallest Teams List," The Global Herald (June 8, 2010).