Soccer is undoubtedly the most popular sport among Koreans. Whenever World Cup season comes, many Koreans burn the midnight oil to watch the games with the Taeguk Warriors. Whenever a Korean player succeeds in a “goal-in,” shouts of joy burst out here and there from across apartment complexes in the middle of the night.
At the ongoing World Cup in Qatar this year, the South Korean national soccer team did not fail the Korean people once again and performed quite well, reaching the round of 16. As a result, the players had the honor of attending a presidential dinner hosted by President Yoon Suk-yeol and first lady Kim Keon-hee a few days ago.
When watching a match, people’s focus is usually on whether their team will win or lose. Life becomes simplified in such a contest: You simply want your team to win and for the other team to be defeated. Soccer games are like narcotics that way. While avidly cheering for our team, we are intoxicated by the game and forget all other things in the meantime. In the past, therefore, military dictators slyly used such events to make people forget their tyranny.
However, there is much more to soccer than simply winning or losing. At Seoul National University, I taught my students to see the world from a soccer ball and the universe on the field. Indeed, a soccer ball resembles the globe, and the soccer field could be a microcosm of the universe. I told my students, “If you can do it, then winning or losing no longer matters because you can see a larger picture there.”
Then, with reference to the game, I assigned Robert Coover’s fantasy novel “The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.” and Kurt Vonnegut’s science fiction story “The Sirens of Titan.” The two postmodern novels enabled us to see our lives in this world in a larger perspective, so that we come to realize that our destiny could be a game invented and played by almighty beings. A soccer game, too, provided us the same realization.
Indeed, soccer is a fine metaphor of the world we live in. Here in our world, too, we can find not only fair plays, but also foul plays. We can see conflicts, disputes, battles and wars. In our world, too, a referee is there to scrutinize the game and blow the whistle on foul play. Right outside of the field are coaches and trainers ready to intervene whenever necessary. Finally, there are cheerleaders and the excited, roaring crowd.
On the field, athletes play the game to score and ultimately win. For spectators in the stadium, it is a battle between “us and them,” or “good and bad.” If you are not one of us, we will have to crush you. Indeed, we can see our world on the soccer field.
Recently, a Japanese intellectual, Sasaki Yasuo, wrote about the differences between soccer and politics. He wrote that in a soccer game, “Once players are ‘unleashed’ to the field, each one demonstrates his own capabilities the best he can, to win, free from anyone else’s ‘interference,’ including their own managers or coaches.”
Then, Sasaki compared soccer to politics. He wrote that in the political arena, “Players seem to be leashed, always with someone else on the other end. Sometimes you see coaches or trainers rushing into the field, to play or judge, or even to change the rules of the game at their convenience. Eventually confused players don’t even know which team they are playing for.” Under the circumstances, the team will be doomed to lose inevitably.
The confusion will accelerate when fanatics and hooligans rush to the field to take the side of their team, or when an overexcited crowd comes down to occupy the field under the guise of supporting their team. When even the stadium labor union tries to interfere with the game called politics, things will become irreparably chaotic. Perhaps the team members may still not realize it, but it is only a matter of time for the team to lose the game under such circumstances.
Metaphorically speaking, South Korea is like a soccer team on the field in an international competition. In order to win, we must be united as a team first, not divided by political ideologies. Then, we should reach consensus, and do our job in our designated places. We do not have the luxury of wasting time, looking for scandals from our coach or his spouse. We have our opponents, foes and competitors in front of us.
Referring to South Korea, Sasaki encouraged us, saying, “The Korean soccer team has recently proved to the whole world that Koreans can do it and well above the international level.” I am sure we can do it, as we have done before.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.