Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pocket Wookie

All week long, I've been slightly jealous of the Japan National Team.  From Doha, Qatar to Tajikistan to Beijing, China to Pyongyang, Korea DPR - one fascinating adventure after another to places that most people barely even hear about.

I was surprised to find that Tajikistan's game was played on a pitch worse than the one I played at my high school (Butler).  It looked like nothing but a dry plowed field.  (Hasebe's thoughts on the field? "It's basically dirt.  You could say the turf was green...if you looked at it from a really far distance.")  (I can't stop laughing)

However, I was most intensely curious about Pyongyang and conditions in North Korea.  After reading a few books on North Korea last year, I have spent much time since wondering about conditions there.  I wished that I could somehow be there with the team to see what they saw and to feel what they felt.

A few bits of news started trickling out about the North Korea/Japan encounter:

The Japan national team was detained at the airport for 4 hours due to problems with security.  During that time, power went out at the airport three times.  

The men at airport security warned the Japan national team to stop laughing.

The last team that beat North Korea in North Korea was assaulted with rocks and broken glass.  

The last time Japan went into North Korea for a soccer game was 22 years ago, in June 1989.  The world was very different than it was now - we were still in a Cold War.  June 1989, as many of you may recall, was the time of the Tiananmen Square Incident in Beijing, a startling reminder that China would remain red.  The Fall of the Berlin Wall, meanwhile, was still half a year away.

This time, however, North Korea is isolated, a hermit nation surrounded by flourishing nations on all sides.  The USSR is long gone.  China, though still red, is making its way up the ladder as a growing economic leader.  The heavily feared and worshipped leaders, the famines, and the stark, grey buildings that commonly marked communist countries of yesteryear almost seem like a distant memory to most of the world.  The pictures that appear out of North Korea though all too poignantly remind us that those aspects of communism haven't been eradicated yet.  (In fact, many of the articles that expressed the recent burst of soccer support in North Korea also made a point to state that currently 6 million people are going hungry)

Add to that the fact that Japan is one of Korea's most bitter rivals.  Ever since the military dominance (read: wartime atrocities) of the1940's, most of east Asia has struggled to overcome the wounds Japan inflicted.  For a recluse country like North Korea, with limited interaction with Japan, grudges remain and even fester.

So, there goes my team, into a hostile country, with only 150 supporters and a few dozen reporters to help broadcast the game home to Japan.  The supporters were asked not to bring any noisemakers or banners lest they upset the local fans and were surrounded by armed guards the entire game.

Despite the fact that Japan had already secured a berth in the next qualifying round and North Korea had lost that chance completely, this was long past simply being a soccer game.

North Korea had something to prove and they showed that in the 90 minutes when they dominated possession and managed the only goal of the game early in the second half.  Of course, it wasn't a clean win; North Korea booked seven yellow cards in the process.  But no matter how it ended, they came away the victors.  The first loss for Japan since the World Cup.  The first loss for Alberto Zaccheroni as head coach over the Samurais.

The whole situation kind of amazes me.  It also amazes me that the world didn't sit up and take notice.

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