Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The Socceroos must not give this vile man a free PR kick

Sport and politics shouldn't mix.  But they do.  And that is why the Socceroos, Australia's national football team, shouldn't play North Korea as planned on Wednesday night.

North Korea's communist government has been brutalising its people for decades.  Human Rights Watch reports that North Korea is virtually an open air prison where the people are forced to work for no remuneration of any sort, the state owns all property and freedom of expression is non-existent.

Dissenters are sent to forced labour camps called gwalliso where they are tortured and executed.  The state controls food distribution and is currently in the process of starving its people with its ''military first'' policy.

And then of course there is the fact that the regime is planning to test long-range rockets capable of carrying nuclear warheads this month.

In terms of vile governments, North Korea is as evil as any in history.

But so what?  What's that got to do with a football match?

The reality is that awful governments such as North Korea's use sport to legitimise their rule — both to their own people and to the rest of the world.

After narrowly losing to Brazil in the opening match at the 2010 World Cup, the regime decided to televise North Korea's second match to the nation, in what is believed to be the first ever live sports telecast in the Hermit Kingdom.  After their 7-0 drubbing in that game, the event was simply not reported in the state-controlled media.

But the North Koreans aren't the first to understand the power of the reflected glory of sport (and the opposite in defeat).  Throughout history, nefarious regimes have used sport to consolidate their power and butter up the international community.

Famously, Hitler enthusiastically hosted the 1936 Olympics to showcase Nazi rule and Argentina's military junta spent 10 per cent of their national budget on the 1978 World Cup.

On the other hand, boycotts and bans have been shown to put a dent in the power of repressive governments.  When sports-mad South Africans describe being ''closed off from the world'' as a key factor in the downfall of apartheid, they aren't just talking about trade.

Some will argue that athletes shouldn't be punished for the activities of foreign governments and that they personally don't have any higher moral obligation, other than to do their best.

That's not quite true.  Soccer, along with many other sports, receives an enormous amount of public funding in Australia.  National team manager Holger Osieck is among Australia's highest paid public servants and the players themselves were the beneficiaries of extensive government support as youngsters developing their skills at facilities like the AIS.

Given the way any success the North Koreans have on Wednesday night will be used by the communist government, Australian taxpayers are effectively picking up the tab for Kim Jong-un's PR campaign.

This will no doubt raise questions about some of the nations Australia is regularly pitted against as a member of the Asian Football Confederation.  If we're not going to play against North Korea, then maybe we shouldn't play Saudi Arabia, given the disgusting treatment of women in that country?  Or Syria?  Or Iran?  Where do we draw the line?

That's a great question, and it's a debate we need to have.  The government, sporting bodies, the media and fans need to face up to the reality of what sport is and how it's used.

But Australia has form in this area.  In 2004, cricketer Stuart MacGill ruled himself out of a tour of Zimbabwe as a protest against Robert Mugabe's murderous regime.

And in 1971, debate raged over whether Australia should play the South African cricket team, in which black players were prohibited to play.  Cricketing icon and the Australian Cricket Board Chairman at the time, Don Bradman, flew to Johannesburg to meet with the South African Prime Minister B.J. Vorster.

When Bradman asked Vorster why blacks were banned, Vorster replied that their inferior intellect meant they couldn't cope with the complexities of the game.  Bradman asked him if he'd heard of Garry Sobers, promptly concluded the meeting and Australia didn't play South Africa again for over 20 years.

Australia's soccer players have been an incredible source of pride for the nation over the last decade.  But while their heroics in Sydney and Kaiserslautern and Nelspruit at the World Cups will never be forgotten;  they would have no finer hour than if they refused to play North Korea this Wednesday night.

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