by Rishi Desai
The World Cup brings together two of my favorite things: sport and international politics. How many great World Cup rivals are deeply rooted in historical strife? Drawing England ignited a slew of antagonism stemming from the revolutionary war.
Mexico-USA, Portugal-Spain, England-Argentina, England-Germany, Argentina-Brazil, France-Italy, all brilliant rivalries made more perfect by historical conflict.
As I was receiving everyone's picks for the World Cup, I chuckled as no one was picking North Korea (eventually two people did, one by mistake). Who could root for one of the most ruthless dictatorships in the world? It was a matter of national pride to avoid wishing anything good upon North Korea.
As the World Cup approached, the madness started flooding in. Kim Jong-Il was supposedly constantly talking to the North Korean coach using invisible phones so small that they can't be seen by the naked eye. We don't have this technology because it was invented by the Dear Leader himself. We soon found out that North Korea's fans were actually hired Chinese actors. We witnessed the bizarre press conference in which North Korea dodged every question. As North Korea does not recognize the existence of South Korea, they told reporters that there is no such country as North Korea, and they would only respond if addressed as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
North Korea's team looked like they would merely be a wonderfully entertaining sideshow.
Then they played Brazil. I was looking forward to seeing the Brazilians light up the scoreboard. My main concern was that Brazil would be playing tough competition for the rest of the tournament and this would be our only chance to taste our beloved joga bonito before Coach Dunga put his defensive-minded shackles back on the team.
Joga bonito we saw - but it was from both teams. Yes, North Korea largely played a defensive game, but they played with a level of intensity and panache that every other underdog in the tournament has been too timid to pursue. They chased down every ball, ran out every play, and took every chance they could. Their shot selection was bold - often bordering on absurd. They showed a complete disregard for the fact that they were playing the best team on the planet. Above all, they were inspiring.
It's easy to hate European teams rostered by international superstars with multi-million dollar contracts. It isn't easy to hate a group of players living under an oppressive dictatorship that barely allows the world to see them play. In fact, anyone who loves soccer, anyone who has seen the beauty of sport transform a person, a team, or a town, might find it impossible not to love this team.
I don't know the personal stories of the North Korean team - we'd be hard-pressed to find someone who does. But I've seen and played soccer in countries torn apart by civil war, famine, and oppression. Between whistles, the Beautiful Game is your life. It's 90 minute respite from the chaos and madness that might surround you. And from the shores of Somalia, to the prison of Robben Island, to the heart of North Korea, soccer peppers the bleakest of landscapes with heroes and kings and triumph and glory, if only for short while.
Shame on teams who fill their box with defenders and cross their fingers for a draw. Soccer should not be about posturing, it should be about passion, and the rest of the World Cup field would do well not to forget that. The players of North Korea certainly haven't.