Political tensions make S. Korea’s bid look fragile

Taking the World Cup back to South Korea in 2022, 20 years after it was jointly staged there with Japan, would again present soccer’s governing body FIFA with dilemmas over the fractured and difficult relationship between South and North Korea.

By (Reuters)

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Published: Thu 25 Nov 2010, 10:25 AM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 4:33 AM

As if to remind soccer’s power-brokers that North and South Korea are still technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a ceasefire, not a peace treaty, tension escalated again this week.

North Korea fired dozens of artillery shells at a South Korean island off the North’s coast, killing at least two civilians and two soldiers. The action prompted return fire from the South and the dispatch of a United States aircraft carrier group to Korean waters.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter had previously praised the South Korean tender for potentially having the power to reunite the divided peninsula and help to ease political tensions in the region.

“I will be very, very happy to use the power of the World Cup and the power of football to help solve this (problem),” Blatter said on a recent visit to South Korea.

Inter-Korean relations also suffered earlier this year when a South Korean warship was torpedoed off the west coast, near the disputed border.

Whether FIFA, or soccer or the World Cup, can do anything to bring the two nations closer together is an unanswerable question.

However there is no doubt that the country’s astonishing run to the 2002 World Cup semi-finals as co-hosts — and the frenzied support of their “Red Devil” fans — added a fairytale twist to that tournament and proved the World Cup could unite people.

Technology leader

The United States, Australia, Japan and Qatar all have shorter odds as potential hosts but FIFA could be rewarded with a spectacular return if they take the plunge and opt for South Korea.

Dynamic, fun and a world leader in technology, South Korea presents soccer’s leaders with a spicy alternative to its 2022 rivals when they vote in Zurich on Dec. 2.

It boasts excellent infrastructure and easy accessibility for its hi-tech stadiums.

Both Koreas qualified for this year’s World Cup, with the South reaching the last 16 while the North were overpowered in the first round on their first appearance since 1966.

The chairman of South Korea’s bidding committee, Han Sung-joo, said the country planned to stage a handful of games in North Korea if it won the hosting rights.

Having become the first Asian side to reach the World Cup semi-finals, South Korea have a superior pedigree to any of their rival bidders.

With its state-of-the-art 2002 stadium still in pristine condition and some of the most fervent support in the world, a South Korean World Cup would have all the ingredients for success.

On the downside, the proximity to the 2002 finals is likely to be a telling factor — while the uneasy relationship with the northern half of the peninsula is far from helpful.

Facts and figures relating to South Korea’s bid to stage the 2022 World Cup finals:

Bid motto: Passion That Unites

Why are they bidding?

South Korea agreed to a FIFA compromise to co-host the 2002 World Cup finals with Japan but reaching the semi-finals of that tournament fuelled the country’s determination to go it alone. Has superb stadiums and infrastructure.

Best footballing moment: Storming to the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup as co-hosts, triggering a mass outpouring of patriotic fervour from tens of millions of red-clad fans across the country.

Best-known footballers: National team captain and Manchester United forward Park Ji-sung burst on to the scene at the 2002 finals and is arguably Asia’s best player.

Former Perugia striker Ahn Jung-hwan, whose golden goal famously knocked Italy out of the 2002 tournament, runs Park close with his pin-up looks although he is coming to the end of his career.

Previous World Cup performances: South Korea have Asia’s best footballing pedigree, qualifying for the last seven World Cups and reaching the last four in 2002 and the last 16 in South Africa this year.

Main stadium for 2022: Seoul’s World Cup stadium, with a capacity of 66,000, will be expanded to 83,000 should South Korea get the nod in FIFA’s vote on Dec. 2.

Best points: Gleaming, modern stadiums still in place from the successful co-hosting of 2002, experience of staging big sports events. It is arguably the world’s most hi-tech nation, with the quickest internet connections anywhere. Excellent rail and road networks make travel easy.

Possible drawbacks: Staged the tournament as recently as 2002, which may persuade FIFA not to risk a diplomatic row with Japan with other markets available to them. Uneasy relationship with North Korea which was highlighted by the North firing artillery shells at a South Korean island this week.

Legacy point: South Korea has said it will ask North Korea to stage a handful of games if it wins the right to stage the 2022 World Cup, touting the bid as a means of promoting peace on the divided peninsula.

What they say: The chairman of South Korea’s World Cup bidding committee, Han Sung-joo: “It would be a good chance to bring North Korea out of the cold. It will help to ease the distrust and bring the countries together.”

Bookies’ odds: 40-1

Population: 48.6 million

Number of clubs: 100, according to FIFA, with 31,127 registered players. Fifteen clubs play in the K-League.

FIFA world ranking (Nov. 2010): 39

Trivia fact: Park Ji-sung became the first Asian player to appear in UEFA’s Champions League final when he was in the Manchester United team beaten by Barcelona in 2009 in Rome. He was expected to achieve that honour 12 months earlier, but was surprisingly left out of the 2008 final against Chelsea by manager Alex Ferguson who said it was the hardest decision of his managerial career.

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