World Cup kicks off

Sport Business News

It's finally here. The moment we have all been waiting for has arrived, and with the time for talk now at an end, a month of non–stop football awaits us, writes Rory Squires.

South Africa has been very defensive about people questioning its hosting capabilities, and local organising committee chief Danny Jordaan has been particularly snappy when asked about the country's well documented crime problem. There have also been doubts about the transport infrastructure, and with part of the Gautrain network having only opened a few days ago and numerous reports of major traffic jams, it is clear that not all of the issues have been rectified. South Africa always said that it wanted to be judged on the tournament itself, and that is exactly what the public will do. But as we prepare to sit back and immerse ourselves in a tournament that will bring plenty of pleasure for those watching around the world as well as the estimated 500, 000 lucky enough to be travelling to South Africa, those of us ready to gorge ourselves on this feast of football would do well, just for a moment, to consider the wider picture and broader issues that most people will gloss over in the coming four weeks. It is an inescapable fact that South Africa did not have the power resources to ensure there would not be blackouts during the event. However, help was provided by a number of neighbouring countries, with Zimbabwe proving to be particularly hospitable. With the Zimbabwean government having ordered the state–run national power utility to ensure there are no power cuts during World Cup matches in South Africa, those in Zimbabwe have been left in the dark. In a country that is steeped in out–of–control inflation and has just entered its winter months, the knock–on effect of Zimbabwe's favour to its southern neighbour is that the country's usual power cuts of two or three times a week for four hours at a time have altered to five times a week for up to 14 or more hours. The power cuts last from dawn until dusk for the majority of citizens who, therefore, will have the added insult of not be able to watch most of the tournament on their TV screens. The situation in Zimbabwe in relation to the World Cup, largely ignored by observers in the build–up to the event, is appalling, sobering, and should not be forgotten when we marvel at the sparkling new stadia lit up against the night sky in South Africa. Meanwhile on Tuesday 15 June, North Korea will take on Brazil in Johannesburg – an unquestionably intriguing match–up between the polar opposites of the football world. However, when the TV cameras focus on the teams walking out at Ellis Park, and then swing over to capture the faces of excited fans kitted out in the unmistakable red of the team officially known as Korea DPR, the watching FIFA executives should hang their heads in shame. Very few – if any – of those in the crowd sporting the colours of North Korea will actually be from the country. Most will be Japanese, hired as supporters by Kim Jong–il's bizarre regime, as North Koreans are not allowed to leave the country and attend the tournament. In fact, North Koreans will not even be able to watch the World Cup back home on television. The country's state–run broadcast platforms will only carry action from the competition if the team wins as the country's leaders do not tolerate the idea of defeat, no matter who the opposition is. Instead, back home in North Korea, the vast majority of the population is facing up to the very likely prospect of a second famine in the space of 15 years. The first one, in the mid–1990s, is thought to have claimed the lives of around three million people – one in 10 North Koreans at the time. This deadly situation is entirely self–inflicted by the leaders of the country, but they will not be the ones to suffer. Meanwhile in South Africa, the players will be under unimaginable pressure to perform on the world stage. Now it has to be asked why FIFA, a body that claims to take such a tough stance on political interference in the running of national football associations, has somehow let North Korea slip under the radar. Whilst the likes of Greece have been suspended for such reasons in recent years – the same Greece that won UEFA Euro 2004 – it appears that the most blatant example of political interference of all has seemingly gone unnoticed. If it had been noticed, surely the team would not be participating at this summer's World Cup. Some, like United Nations (UN) general secretary Ban Ki–Moon, have trotted out the usual line that sport has the power to unify, and some would argue that there is little point in further isolating what is already the most isolated country in the world, particularly at a time when North Korea's nuclear ambitions are at the top of the UN agenda. However, it can equally be argued that nothing positive can arise from North Korea taking part in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. If the team manages to win a game, the news will simply be used to fuel nationalist propaganda in North Korea, further polarising the nation from the rest of the world. But what fate awaits those players if they are unable to perform a miracle in the tournament's toughest group, which comprises Brazil, Cäte d'Ivoire and Portugal? The North Korean footballers, as is always the case when they travel abroad, are accompanied by intimidating minders while their families are blocked from joining them, presumably to curtail any plans the players have of seeking asylum in another country. Moon Ki–nam, an ex–coach with the North Korean national team who defected to South Korea six years ago, recently said that players are rewarded if they win games. However, he added that they are also punished if they lose, with some sent to work in coal mines so they have time to think about how they have disgraced the name of their homeland. People say politics has no place in sport, and sport has the ability to cross borders and build bridges. However, it is wrong of the world to hide behind the convenience of this notion when there is no chance of this happening. Although there have been examples in the past of sport easing political tensions, it is difficult to see how this can happen in this case at the World Cup. When the essence of the beautiful game is certain to be conveniently lost at the broadcast 'jammers' erected on the heavily guarded borders of North Korea, whatever the result, the World Cup won't be able to provide the materials to build those so–called bridges. The World Cup is a wonderful event, but the participation of the North Korean team at the tournament is a mockery and spits in the face of everything the football showpiece should stand for. The North Korean fans at the World Cup are not North Korean and the players will be taking part under duress. For those waiting for results and action on TV back home, unless North Korea wins the World Cup, it will be as if the tournament never happened. FIFA could have blocked the team from playing at the World Cup, but they didn't. Sport does have the ability to cross political borders and build relationships. But when one is not living in fear of a horrific regime, that is an easy thing to say. Footnote:The chief executive officer of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Organising Committee South Africa, Dr Danny Jordaan, hailed "the incredible atmosphere and spectacular football" in the historic tournament's opening match played in front of 84, 490 fans at Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium on Friday 11 June. "We could not have asked for more, a capacity stadium, a host nation with a will to win, an incredible atmosphere and spectacular football. It is just fantastic that the first goal of Africa's first World Cup went to South Africa, we really couldn't have written a better script, " said Jordaan following a thrilling 1–1 draw between South Africa and Mexico. Jordaan said that the match set the tone for the rest of the tournament. "Today we have established a template for every city and every town across South Africa to celebrate this World Cup". Jordaan added that the opening match had given him confidence from an organisational perspective. "The match went well and all of South Africa can be proud of what we have done in front of 500m people. " About The Sport Briefing This story has been reproduced with the kind permission of The Sport Briefing. The Sport Briefing is published by PA Sport and can be found at: www. thesportbriefing. comSubscribers to Major Events International can take advantage ofexcellent discounted rates for The Sport Briefing. Sign up now to receive a 20% discount on your annual licence for TheSport Briefing. Special rates are also available for company–widesubscriptions. Subscribers receive a daily digest or up to 30 stories from across every sector of the global sports industry, access to the 24–sevenwww. thesportbriefing. com website and a hard copy of the quarterlymagazine. For more information, email info@thesportbriefing. com or call +(0) 44 207 963 7888.

Additional information