Like many, I was cheering on North Korea - or the DPR Korea, as its manager Kim Jong-hun, is fond of reminding foreign journalists - in their match against Brazil last night. The team, possibly benefiting from their international isolation, appeared completely unawed by their date with the five-times world champions, and matched them defensively for long stretches. They even created a clutch of half-chances and when Ji Yun-nam put the ball in the net, they got their just desserts. Back home the faithful undoubtedly went into raptures, seventeen hours later.
But a few people on Twitter were wondering aloud about the morality of supporting a team representing such a repressive country. I can understand that, even if the propaganda benefits Kim Jong-il is likely to get from three probable defeats at the World Cup are obscure to say the least. It'll be hard to put an ideological spin on that one. There's always a tinge of discomfort to be had when unsavoury regimes stand to benefit from the national team's sporting prowess, examples include Franco and Spain's 1964 European Championship win over the USSR (not to mention Real Madrid), Salazar's troika of football, fado and Fatima as weapons of mass distraction, the Nigerian regime of Sani Abacha during Nigeria's glory days of the mid-90s. Brazil's generals were also keen to claim credit for the selecão's glories, despite occasional resistance from the likes of Socrátes and Miguel Saldanha. Players of other national teams were subjected to terrorism by the tyrants their peoples laboured under, such as Haiti under Duvalier, Zaïre under Mobutu and Iraq under Saddam Hussein (or more precisely, his son, Uday).
The New Statesman, for the second tournament running, has compiled its list of World Cup qualifiers' ethical credentials. It is, of course, a laudable attempt to draw attention to the wrong-doings of countries but there would be few genuine football fans that would use it as a basis to root for someone, otherwise the likes of Denmark and Slovenia would have disproportionate support from neutrals.
Perhaps it's because I came to football at a very early age but I rarely associate a team with the politics of its country, or even its people. For instance, my current dislike of the Portugal side does not tally with my love of that country. I have supported Portugal in the past but I suppose a certain Real Madrid midfielder might have a lot to do with that disenchantment (his new club manager doesn't help their cause either). I have similarly fallen in and out of love (and sometimes back in love) with teams such as Spain, France, Italy and Argentina. My dislike of the English football team does not reflect on my attitude towards ordinary English people, but has more to do with the arrogance of their media; I can also say the same thing about France and their media's idea they have a divine right to be in the World Cup every four years. And I have huge sympathy for those faultlessly cosmopolitan Americans who play for and support the US national team, and draw brickbats from embittered right-wing isolationists at home and left-wing populists on their travels in Latin America.
There are heroes and villains at every World Cup. Usually the best are garnered in the drama of the game itself, except for the perennials: the grand guignol muppets of the rancidly corrupt national federations, headed by the big rancid cheese himself, Sepp Blatter. The corrupt will always be with us. But I won't hold that against the joy the citizen of any country holds in supporting their national team. Most do it in perfect innocence, and without thinking its the be-all and end-all.