Football (Japan) Lost In Translation . . . Relaunched 2012!
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Standards, Asia, Standards!!
Last week I reported that five Iranians were killed in the mob scene that ensued after the Iran/Japan game in Tehran. Yesterday, I was able to watch the Iran/NorthKorea game in Pyongyang. Trouble started even before the match.

Capacity
Just like Azadi (Iran) stadium looked to be way over capacity in last week's game, Kim Il-sung Stadium was packed beyond capacity. Too many people had made their way through the entrance gates, and a few hundred people spilled onto the track area behind one of the goals. It took about ten minutes for ladders to be brought, and the crowd slowly climbed back up into the seats. People ended up squashed up against each other, and I remember thinking how uncomfortable they must be.

All Parties were Pretty Pathetic
The real problem started after Iran had scored their second goal (first from NK's headed own goal, second from a swift and clean counter). North Korea did not ease their pressure on Iran, and a player made his way into the penalty area with the ball. An Iran defender's body got in the way, and the North Korean player went down. The Referee did not call for a penalty kick, and the North Korean team unleashed their frustration and wrath on the Syrian ref. This was no ordinary objection, either. Even in AFC games, I haven't seen this kind of ganging up on the ref in a long time. North Korea could have been too inexperienced, and unable to control themselves. The players rushed the ref, grabbing his shirt and pushing him around en masse. Some Iran players tried to intercept, and the FIFA game commissioner and NK staff got involved. Though no punches were thrown, it looked rather dicey for a while. The first player to rush the ref got a red card. The referee's call was understandable -- in other words, he could have called a penalty, but only if he had treated Iran the same way, which he hadn't. Refs have their own characteristics, and it's important to figure out what those are. In the end, the ref has the last word; it is sort of the first rule of football, no matter what.

After the game ended, the spectators were now the ones who could not control their anger -- people threw plastic drink bottles and glass beer bottles as well as detaching their seats from the bleachers and hurling them onto the field. The referee and Iran players were unable to make their way to the lockerrooms. It took intervention by army/security and about an hour for things to calm down, but Iran still had trouble getting their bus through a huge mob of a couple hundred angry people outside who surrounded their bus and threw rocks. News sources stated that some yelled that "all foreigners should be killed". It was really good to hear that no one on the Iran team got hurt.

Broadcasting Manipulation?
The funny thing about North Korea's handling of football games is that in the past only games where they won or drew were broadcast after the fact, and in edited versions. This month, things changed when North Korea broadcast the vs. Bahrain game two days after the game. Yesterday, they broadcast a one-hour edited version of the game only 6 hours after the final whistle, leaving out the pre-game crowd footage and post-game crowd footage. They did repeat the scene-in-question in slo-mo several times. This has North Korea analysts in Japan scurrying to figure out exactly what their intention is with the broadcast changes. Who knows. The irony was seeing all the sponsor signs lined up along the sides -- Toshiba, JCBcard, Kirin...

Dealing with the Aftermath
The JFA of course followed these events very carefully. It looks like they are going to appeal to the AFC/FIFA for some followup. The utter incompetence behind the management of this game, the unacceptable behavior of the North Korean team, the poor behavior of the spectators (albeit only a portion of the sixty-odd thousand total), and general unavailability of good footballing conditions (artificial turf, no lights, etc.)... For such crucial games like World Cup qualifiers, it is more than reasonable to request some change. The JFA may be looking for a ban on North Korean spectators, a change of venue to either Japan or some third-party country, etc. This is something I really would like the JFA to push -- given the particular political and emotional tension that exists between Japan and North Korea, sending the JapanNT into an environment like that could prove to be extremely dangerous. It is the host's responsbility to make sure these things don' t happen.

As for the North Korean team itself, I was really surprised at this behavior. The coach had sent off a letter of objection to FIFA regarding the supposed bias the Thai referee had for Bahrain in last week's game (which they lost 1-2). I had mentioned then that doing this without much of a case would only breed bad morale within the team, a sense of victimization and indignation -- and maybe the combined frustration of losing three times and anger at questionable referee judges proved to be too much for the team to handle emotionally. They don't have the same international experience as the Japan team, and perhaps it is too much for me to expect them to be able to navigate all these disappointments. Still half the battle during these qualifiers is mental. I hope the coach is able to remotivate and focus the team again.

Security Precautions in Japan
In contrast, Japan is ridiculously thorough about these World Cup-related games. The JFA has had recent experience co-hosting World Cup 02. Spectator entry into the stadium is organized -- people are let in in small group increments. All drink containers are confiscated, and the liquids are transferred to paper cups. All spectators go through the metal-detector inspection. There is a lottery system for buying tickets to the games -- no more tickets are given out beyond capacity. For those that couldn't get a ticket to the game, there is an option of gathering at the virtual stadium -- where fans can watch the game on large screen in a stadium with other supporters. It all sounds so dull and overly organized, I know, but with football being what it is, it would be a silly way for someone you love to die or get hurt.

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