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Football World Cup: Bridge over troubled Korean waters

sports Updated: May 20, 2010 23:46 IST

Football often improves diplomatic relations — and North and South Korea are already proving they want peace.

As the occasional shot continues to ring over the Yellow Sea, recriminations are traded between North and South Korea. The relatives of the 46 sailors killed in March when the Cheonan warship sank in disputed circumstances still mourn. In Pyongyang, rumours of Kim Jong-il’s poor health abound, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea takes ever-increasing measures to ward off the instability of a succession in leadership.

This might seem an unlikely backdrop to a friendly game of football, but next month North and South Korea move the theatre of conflict from the disputed western sea border to South Africa, where they will compete alongside 30 other countries for the biggest prize in football.

The chances of a direct north-versus-south clash at the World Cup are slim, since both teams are drawn in separate groups — which may be for the best. When the teams met in the qualifying stages for South Africa 2010, FIFA ordered North Korea to move the game from Pyongyang to Shanghai after they refused to play the South Korean national anthem before the match. But despite all this, there is a sense that North Korea’s first appearance at a World Cup since 1966 could actually go some way towards healing rifts with the international community, not least the south.

“North Koreans are very nationalistic,” says Glyn Ford, a former MEP and author of North Korea on the Brink. “But if they can’t support North Korea they’ll support South Korea. They’d prefer South Korea to win against anyone else, unless they’re playing them. They’re cheering for Koreans.”

It’s a concept totally foreign to what most Europeans are used to. Just look at the “Anyone but England” T-shirts on sale in Scotland as the World Cup approaches. Yet the South, even with the animosity caused by the sinking of the Cheonan, will probably take a similar view.

“Koreans from Japan, the Korean community in China, and even those who have travelled to South Africa to support the South largely take the same view in regards to sport,” he said.