Thursday, June 17, 2010

North Korean rent-a-fans, etc.

Adding a bizarre subplot to the 2010 World Cup is the participation of North Korea for only the second time in that sad country's history. Their first appearance was in 1966. Since the DPRK is a giant gulag with no freedom to travel for its citizens, it was questionable whether they would have any fans present for their first match against Brazil on Tuesday. As it turned out there were several dozen identically dressed Koreans (or were they?) looking like a red dot in the sea of green and yellow Brazil supporters. It was an odd sight. ESPN announcer Martin Tyler speculated on-air that they were handpicked Chinese actors.

Tyler wasn't far from the truth as Kevin Baxter reports in the L.A. Times:

In South Africa, a soccer game is a thinly disguised reason to sing, dance, scream and blow on a vuvuzela for hours. The North Korean fans handpicked to attend their country's World Cup opener Tuesday displayed all the joy and spontaneity of accountants attending a seminar.

That the game — played in a wind chill of 24 degrees — ended in a 2-1 victory for Brazil was predictable. That several hundred North Korean fans were on hand to watch it was not.

China's state-run news agency has reported that North Korea had offered tickets to sporting officials and tour agencies in China, which does not have a team here. Chinese journalists in South Africa had adopted the North Koreans as their own and, the news agency reported, about 1,000 Chinese dancers and musicians were recruited to cheer for the North Koreans.

But shortly before Tuesday's game started, a five-row block of seats on the second level at Ellis Park Stadium filled up with more than 40 men and a woman, all dressed in identical red shirts, jackets and scarves, wearing identical red caps and waving small North Korean flags. Across the way there was another similarly sized red dot of fans in grandstands that were otherwise filled with the green and yellow of Brazil.

Kim Yong Chon, 43, one of the North Korean fans, said the group, which numbered 300, was not Chinese, but he admitted they had been carefully recruited by the North Korean government to make the trip. Speaking through an interpreter, he said the group had left Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, and traveled through Beijing the same day and they would stay in South Africa as long as their team does.

Maybe when this is over they can fill empty seats at University of Miami home games. While I'm still on the subject of football/soccer -- tomorrow's match with Slovenia is huge for the American side. It's not as sexy as last Saturday's USA v. England tilt, but it's more important. A win is crucial. A draw or a loss might well prove fatal to American hopes of advancing to the Round of 16. Go Yanks!

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