Listening to the South Korea fans cheering “Dae-han-min-guk” (Republic of Korea) after their World Cup match against Germany on June 25 and watching fireworks light up the Seoul skyline, it was hard to realize that the South Korean team had lost its semifinal match.
But perhaps the Red Devil fans got it right. South Korea has emerged as a big winner in this first-ever, Asian-based World Cup. South Korea and its cohost, Japan, have put Asia on the map, not only as a serious international soccer contenders but as world-class hosts.
Underscoring this point was another remarkable sight during the ill-fated (for South Korea) match: an organized group of South Koreans cheering for the German squad. No, they did not lack national pride or team spirit; squads were put together to cheer for each team, including South Korea opponents, so that none would be without some support while competing far from home. This speaks volumes about the South Korean peoples’ commitment to making the games the huge success that they have indeed been.
Yet another remarkable (not to mention heartwarming) sight was the presence of Japanese fans cheering on their South Korean compatriots. This underscored the spirit of cooperation that is emerging between these two historic antagonists; it also speaks to a broader sense of Asian identity being fostered by this World Cup.
While they would have undoubtedly been happier had their own team made the final four, every Japanese I spoke with seemed genuinely pleased with South Korea’s great achievement.
It is always risky to draw too many conclusions from a sporting event, no matter how momentous, but I would argue that the degree of self-confidence fostered and nurtured by South Korea’s strong showing — going further than any Asian team has ever gone in World Cup competition — and the spirit of South Korea-Japan cooperation in evidence throughout the planning and execution of the first-ever cohosted event, should pay handsome future dividends.
The sight of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung sitting next to Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro and Emperor Akihito during Sunday’s final could signal a major step forward in South Korean-Japanese relations, especially if the Emperor accepts the anticipated South Korean offer to make a historic visit to Seoul later this year.
The fact that the South Korean national team proceeded further than Japan’s (which also exceeded expectations by making it to the second round) will hopefully provide South Koreans with the extra self-confidence needed to finally put the past behind them and accept Japan for what it has become, rather than continue to dwell on what it was more than a half century ago. The Emperor’s comments earlier this year acknowledging his Korean ancestry should also help produce a warm welcome.
South Korean self-confidence is also beginning to emerge in Seoul’s dealings with China, itself a first time participant in the World Cup. Both publicly and privately, South Koreans are beginning to speak out more forcibly against what many are calling China’s condescending attitude toward their country. The inexcusable actions of Chinese police, who earlier this month severely manhandled South Korean diplomats while reacting to attempts by North Korean refugees to seek asylum at the South Korean Embassy in Beijing, have Seoul finally refusing to turn the other cheek and demanding more responsible Chinese behavior in dealing with the increasingly sensitive, potentially explosive issue. Who knows, it may even result in enough South Korean courage to grant the Dalai Lama a visa to visit South Korea over Chinese protests that would, were circumstances reversed, be labeled interference in one’s internal affairs.
Even South Korean-U.S. relations have benefited from the World Cup. In terms of fostering better relations, one could not have hoped for a better scenario than having the two national teams play to a 1-1 tie, with America’s elevation into the second round then made possible by a subsequent South Korean victory over Portugal. While I cheered vigorously for the U.S. team against Germany, I must admit to breathing a sigh of relief when a South Korea-U.S. elimination rematch was avoided. Americans, especially those residing or based in South Korea and Japan, quickly and enthusiastically rallied behind the South Korean team.
I particularly enjoyed the irony in watching South Korean players and fans admonishing their Italian and Spanish counterparts to “get over it” and quit whining about poor officiating while scornfully rejecting rumors of a conspiracy in their respective wins over both teams. Perhaps South Koreans may now be prepared to put complaints about (considerably less controversial) officiating during the Salt Lake Olympics behind them as well.
It appears that even South Korean politics may be affected by the World Cup success. One of the most politically popular figures in South Korea today (other than coach Guus Hiddink, who is not eligible to run for office, honorary South Korean citizenship notwithstanding) is Korea Football Association president Chung Mong Joon, who has previously been identified as having presidential aspirations. While the two major political parties have already chosen their candidates, the sixth son of the Hyundai business empire’s founder will be closely watched as the presidential campaign now heats up in earnest.
Alas, following Saturday’s deadly clash in the Yellow Sea, it does not appear that North-South Korean relations will immediately be affected by the games. Pyongyang passed on the opportunity to share cohosting chores with its southern brothers and only begrudgingly acknowledged South Korean participation in the event during heavily censored rebroadcasts of excerpts of selected matches — it did, not surprisingly, show Germany beating the United States.
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