How to en­joy World Cup

The Korea Times - - OPINION - Park Moo-jong (em­jei29@gmail.com) af­ter work­ing as a reporter since 1974. is a stand­ing ad­viser of The Korea Times. He served as the pres­i­dent-pub­lisher of the na­tion’s first English daily news­pa­per from 2004 to 2014

Where has the World Cup (in Rus­sia) gone?

Many peo­ple asked this of each other ahead of the open­ing of the FIFA World Cup Rus­sia, some­what sur­prised by the un­ex­pected lack­lus­ter at­mos­phere in a coun­try which hosted the global foot­ball fes­ti­val for tremen­dous suc­cess 16 years ago in 2002 to­gether with Ja­pan.

The World Cup fever did not take hold here un­til a week ago at least.

Many cited the June 12 sum­mit be­tween North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump in Sin­ga­pore and the June 13 lo­cal elec­tions as the main fac­tors that over­shad­owed the sports ex­trav­a­ganza.

South Korea (Korea the Repub­lic as named by FIFA) has slight chance of se­cur­ing a place in the round of 16 in such a tough group with Ger­many, Mex­ico and Sweden as en­e­mies.

Against this back­drop, the largest-ever world’s foot­ball cham­pi­onship kicked off at mid­night (Korean Stan­dard Time) this morn­ing in Moscow with host Rus­sia tak­ing on Saudi Ara­bia in the open­ing match.

Though the Rus­sia World Cup failed to at­tract en­thu­si­as­tic at­ten­tion of Kore­ans so far, the an­tic­i­pa­tion cer­tainly thrilled peo­ple at sta­di­ums, homes, of­fices and else­where around world for a month un­til the fi­nal to start at mid­night July 16.

When it comes to foot­ball, peo­ple usu­ally say “the ball is round,” so few can pre­dict which di­rec­tion the ball will go. Namely, it is dif­fi­cult to know who will be the cham­pion, even if we name fa­vorites.

Ex­perts, gam­blers and fran­tic fans are busy mak­ing their own fore­casts for ma­jor com­pe­ti­tions on the ba­sis of their own judg­ments and each team’s records in in­ter­na­tional matches.

A con­sen­sus both at home and abroad is that South Korea, ranked 57th, has lit­tle chance to sur­vive the pre­lim­i­nary round against Ger­many, ranked 1st, Mex­ico (15th) and Sweden (24th).

In a self-mock­ing metaphor, South Korea’s FIFA rank­ing of 57 (as of June 8) is con­sid­er­ably lower than the to­tal num­ber of the three op­po­nents com­bined.

De­spite the hith­erto less in­ter­est of the Korean peo­ple in this World Cup, I ex­pect the tide will turn de­ci­sively, de­pend­ing on how our team plays against the much-fan­cied op­po­nents, es­pe­cially in the open­ing match against Sweden to be­gin at 9 p.m. June 18 (KST).

Noth­ing is bet­ter than vic­tory. South Korea is cer­tainly in­fe­rior to the three other teams as in­ter­na­tional ex­perts have flatly as­serted. But all is not lost. Such low and pes­simistic ex­pec­ta­tions mean there is not much pres­sure and it has noth­ing to lose. If it wins, a great re­ward; and if it loses, noth­ing lost. On the con­trary, if Ger­many, Sweden and Mex­ico ei­ther win or lose: dou­ble or noth­ing.

I think that South Korea is able to beat Mex­ico since it has de­cent records against North and Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries. My hope is that our team will get a point from a draw against Sweden in the opener and will be for­tu­nate to play de­fend­ing cham­pion Ger­many in the fi­nal game af­ter the world No. 1 team is al­ready through.

Bill Shankly (1914-81), an English foot­ball leg­end, who turned Liver­pool FC from an or­di­nary team into one of the great­est in Eu­rope from the late 50s to early 70s, said in an in­ter­view with the Sun­day Times be­fore his death: “Some peo­ple think foot­ball is a mat­ter of life and death. I can as­sure them it is much more se­ri­ous than that.”

As the Liver­pool man­ager ex­pressed, we Kore­ans are too ob­sessed with the goal of be­ing one of the fi­nal 16, as if it is all or noth­ing, like the way our politi­cians deal with their op­po­nents.

South Korea’s qual­i­fi­ca­tion for the sec­ond round is, of course, a much-cher­ished de­sire of our peo­ple af­ter it suf­fered a hu­mil­i­at­ing fail­ure in Brazil four years ago in 2014.

Yet, sports is nei­ther a war, or a mat­ter of life and death. Sports is just sports, and that’s all.

What we have to do is just cheer our play­ers so they can do their best to dis­play their skills and abil­i­ties in a fair man­ner.

To re­call, “no­body” ex­pected that South Korea would ad­vance to the sec­ond round of 16 in the 2002 Korea-Ja­pan World Cup. Not only our play­ers made it, they stunned the world by beat­ing Italy 2-1 in ex­tra time with Ahn Jung-hwan’s beau­ti­ful header to join the eight and then stopped Spain in a penalty shootout for the semi­fi­nals.

We still re­mem­ber the “Sea of Red Devils (Korean foot­ball sup­port­ers)” on the streets across the na­tion. Es­pe­cially, nearly a mil­lion cit­i­zens jam-packed the Seoul City cen­ter to cheer their team through the night dur­ing the 2002 World Cup to global ad­mi­ra­tion and as­ton­ish­ment.

Sim­i­lar cheer­ing events are to be held on the streets through­out the coun­try, in­clud­ing the roads in front of the COEX in Seoul. It is an easy and ir­re­spon­si­ble job to blame the play­ers for their fail­ure. What’s im­por­tant is to en­cour­age and cheer them up to help lessen their pres­sures as the team ace Son He­ung-min asked.

The fete has be­gun. It’s time to en­joy the games, though the late night shows may strip you of sweet sleep. I am de­ter­mined to be­come a couch potato dur­ing the World Cup pe­riod and make my­self a coach.

I am afraid that af­ter the World Cup, for what joy I should live as many peo­ple joke.

I am sure the at­mos­phere would be a nice change of pace with the start of the global sports fes­ti­val. And the ball is still round. There is no rea­son for South Korea to make a “Rus­sia Mir­a­cle.”

Park Moo-jong

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