Saturday, June 26, 2010


"The more successful he is the more money he makes, the more of a prisoner he becomes. Forced to live by military discipline, he suffers the punishing daily round of training and the bombardments of painkillers and cortisone to forget his aches and fool his body. And on the eve of big games, they lock him up in a concentration camp where he does forced labor eats tasteless food, gets drunk on water and sleeps alone. [...] And one rotten day the player discovers he has bet his life on a single card and his money is gone and so is his fame. Fame, that fleeting lady, didn't even leave him a Dear John letter." - Eduardo Galeano

"The Beautiful Game"

They say soccer is the beautiful game. And on most days, I'll wholeheartedly agree with the simple statement. But the game is beautiful to me not only because watching Ronaldinho play the sport gives me butterflies in the stomach, or even because I actually spill tears over matches. No, the game is beautiful for more reasons than that. It is beautiful because it brings to the fore, briefly, the dynamics of 32 countries. And moreover, because what is brought to the fore is not always pretty. It is not always the lovely footwork of Maradona pirouetting with the ball nestled in the crook of his angled foot. It is not always the joy of sharing beers with your closest friends at 4:30 A.M., yelling and banging fists on the table together. The game of soccer is beautiful because it also reveals publicly, the racism, the power of money, government, the desperateness of poorer countries as the games are televised around the world, at all times of day.

It is this aspect that I would like to direct your attention to -- to a game played between Portugal and North Korea on June 21, 2010. North Korea's second to last match in the qualifying matches against Portugal was painful one to see, fan or not. Resulting in zero goals pitted against Portugal's seven, it is not hard to imagine the failing spirit of the players as the game continued into the final minutes. Having to make it to class, I caught the tail end of the game at a coffee shop while walking to school.

At 6-0, I overheard a young male making a sarcastic comment about the likelihood of Korea progressing from the group. In passing, this is no big deal. There are worse crimes than making a snide remark about a team that ranks 105 in the world, and was not expected to even make it into qualifying. Portugal, who ranks third, is bound to gather some more loyal fans. So yes, this remark in a general context does minimal harm. Yet, upon hearing the remark, I could not help feel any less than pain. I felt pained because North Korea being disqualified cannot be comparable to a country like the U.S. being disqualified. No, for a team who has to reuse kits by peeling off names of old players and sticking their own on, and for a team who cannot trade shirts at the end of the game because it is their only one, this is not simply disqualifying.

There are more anecdotes such as those above, but like much of what happens in North Korea, no one can be sure of what is happening. But rumors continue to abound. The players supposedly return to work in coal mines, an imposed penance, despite the fact that the game was possibly lost due to the directives of Kim Jong Il. But there are more harrowing consequences. There is the sadness that comes from the reassertion that you are still the underdog of the world. There is the regret of not having been able to take full advantage of such a grand opportunity as the World Cup. There is the deep sorrow that comes from realizing your definite separation from a world that just seems to have it so much easier than you. There is that pang of loneliness that thus perhaps becomes manifested for the first time.

So they say soccer is the beautiful game. And I agree. But it is beautiful insofar as the losses can be as monumental as the wins.