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The drama of the World Cup has implications for politics in Japan and South Korea. To be sure, soccer and politics are two different games, one a competition for skill and physical stamina and the other a struggle for power and interests. Nevertheless, we can draw lessons from the performances of the Japanese and South Korean national teams, in particular how they adopted new methods and met with great success — unlike their nations’ leaders, who continue to play the same old political games.

The Japanese are somewhat disappointed about the failure of their team to win its match with Turkey, while South Koreans are overjoyed about the fact that their team became the first Asian country to advance to the World Cup semifinals, even if it failed to reach the final.

Regardless of these outcomes, as cohosts both Japan and South Korea deserve praise for one thing: Their teams achieved their original goal of surviving the first round of matches. The South Korean team went as far as to enter the rank of the four best teams alongside Brazil, Germany and Turkey by beating such European teams as Poland, Portugal, Italy and Spain. This is why the entire country has been gripped by euphoria.

Dutch coach Guus Hiddink, who made the South Korean miracle possible, has become a national hero. As a result, there are various exhortations for emulating “Hiddink-style” politics and management. This excitement provides a sharp contrast to the sorry state of South Korean politics and economics.

What lessons can the Japanese and South Korean soccer teams teach the politicians? Most important of all, the South Korean and Japanese soccer authorities had a profound sense of crisis about the poor performance of their national teams in the 1998 World Cup in Paris. From that time on they did everything they could to do away with their old ways of doing things and adopted drastic new methods, setting a goal of surviving at least the first round of competition in the 2002 World Cup.

To this end, both countries’ soccer committees hired foreign coaches: Hiddink in South Korea and Philippe Troussier in Japan. The Dutch and French coaches were given the authority to select, train and assign athletes solely on the basis of their ability and experience, regardless of crony relationships and money. They worked out different strategies and tactics to meet new challenges according to changing situations. In the case of Japan, Troussier even selected a naturalized Brazilian athlete.

Under the leadership of these tough coaches, the athletes exerted their utmost efforts and practiced team work and cooperation to a maximum degree even if they did display their individual talents when necessary. The initiatives for these changes came from civil society, the soccer associations, which mobilized financial and moral support from voluntary organizations and supporters.

These changes paid off in the performances of the two teams. Above all else, the games captured the hearts and minds of the people when they saw the young players earnestly employing their mental and physical skills to the maximum degree while abiding by the rules of the game, which the referees tried to enforce as fairly as possible.

The performance of the Japanese soccer team provided a sharp contrast to that of Japanese politics. The vast majority of the Japanese public seems frustrated with the inability of the government to pull the world’s second largest economy out of a lengthy recession and rein in deflation. And yet the world of Japanese politics has no sense of crisis, even as it remains riddled with endless scandals involving money and factional struggles.

Since 1993, seven prime ministers have assumed power, each one promising to carry out political and economic reforms. But little has been achieved. This reminds one of the apt words of Robert Michels, an Italian sociologist who pointed out the oligarchic nature of Italian political parties during the 1920s by saying: “the conductor changes but the music remains the same.”

It appears that the old system of governance in Japan is no longer working, let alone producing new music. To end the present political and economic gloom, Japanese politics would benefit from new ways of governance, just as the country’s soccer team did.

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