JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- I watched Brazil’s 2-1 win over North Korea in a bar in the hipsterish neighborhood of Melville, where my brother, nephew and I are renting a small house for two weeks. Brazil shirts abounded, as they always do. The run a distant second to South Africa’s ubiquitous shirt, but the two kits combined make yellow the dominant street color of this World Cup.
I like Brazil for all of the usual reasons -- grace, possession, elan, the inevitable jaw-dropping ball-on-a-string move or physics-defying shot. (Though I suppose physics doesn’t apply to the Jabulani, which along with the vuvuzela is turning into an all-purpose World Cup scapegoat.) But I’m drawn to the North Koreans, too, also for all the usual reasons -- the elusive red jersey made by Legea of Italy, the unknown players, the pre-tournament roster shenanigans, the constant thought in my head: What do they really think about Dear Leader?
When I lived in Greece in the mid-1980s, I was similarly fascinated by Albania. The tiny dictatorship to the north was still governed by the rules of its own bizarre, deceased cult figure, Enver Hoxha. Albania had no diplomatic relations with the U.S., so Americans were barred from entry. Which only deepened my obsession. Whenever an “ethnic Greek” Albanian -- some Greeks maintained (and still do) that the lower third of Albania is Greek -- tunneled under one of the country’s electrified fences, I made sure to attend the news conference in Athens where a group representing “Northern Epirus” trotted out the poor guy. I even traveled to the border to peek into the secret state myself.
Ten years later, before the 1996 Olympics, I persuaded an editor to let me visit Athens for a piece about how Greece had botched its bid for the centennial games and, while I was in the neighborhood, to visit the opened Albania, which was sending a team to the Games for the first time in decades. I was detained in the capital, Tirana, for a few hours for photographing a government building (I wasn’t spying! I swear!), but I did manage to visit the city’s crumbling stadium and dungeon-like training room with rusted weights, and to interview a brown-suited sports minister, who presented me with a copper vase as a gift. It’s one of my most-cherished possessions.
My journalistic curiosity is, of course, a Western luxury. People suffered under Hoxha and his successors, and they suffer in North Korea today. (To understand how and why in starkly human terms, read Los Angeles Times correspondent Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.) For me, and many others no doubt, the presence of bizarro North Korea adds geopolitical spice to the World Cup, just as the DPRK did in 1966 and Iran did in 1998 and East Germany did in 1974. We love the strange in life, and sports are no exception. And what could be stranger than a team from the strangest land of all?
International sporteuacracies like FIFA make a great show of their lofty ideals: “sport” as omnipotent force for good. More often than not it’s easiest, or at least most expedient, for them to leave politics out of things. How else could FIFA officials sanction North Korea’s participation, let along mingle with its functionaries in exclusive stadium “tribunes”? I don’t believe, as Dave Zirin, the lefty sports commentator (on whose radio show I have appeared), wrote on Huffington Post earlier this month that “hell, yes,” “teams [should] refuse to play any countries directly involved in what they perceive as injustice.” (Must Read Soccer disagrees, too.) My rationale has nothing to do with whether the world would be a better place without North Korea’s oppressive regime (of course it would), or whether sports can pressure wayward states to change (it sometimes doesn’t hurt to try, as FIFA did when it banned South Africa for its apartheid policy). Watching the Brazil game, I simultaneously fretted that a North Korea loss would create problems for its players and that a win, however unlikely, would give the government cause to trumpet the virtue of its ways. (It probably manipulated the outcome to serve its purposes anyway: Little North Korea scored against mighty Brazil!)
No, I just think politics makes sports more compelling. Admit it: The Olympics aren’t as sexy since the Cold War ended. Without Pyongyang’s presence in the Group of Death, what would we have? Argentina playing Greece for bragging rights to the best blue-and-white flag? I for one can’t wait for North Korea’s matches against those capitalist swine from Brazil and Portugal. If only I could buy a jersey.