World Cup 2010: We are all North Korean Now

A battling performance against the mighty Brazilians converts downtrodden minnows into everyone’s second favourite team in South Africa.

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It’s a major sporting event without the staple stories of mad scrambles for tickets, are we witnessing some historic moment of social and sporting progress? Well, the stories of ticket prices with plenty of zeros tagged on the end have yet to surface. Robbie Earle aside, ticketing scandals have so far not made the headlines and most outlets have had some coverage touching on the plight of South Africa’s social and economic inequalities. This is of course commendable, but once we scratch a little deeper and we learn that South Africans and other natives of the continent wont be able to afford entry to the stadium, the scramble for tickets will be done by the worlds visiting fans and could be quite orderly and reasonably priced. What a legacy that would be for the first African hosted World Cup.

A less ordered and at times less polite scramble is going on in the world’s largest continent Asia. Which team to support?

The legacy of the first World Cup hosted in Asia in 2002 has yet to bear fruit on the field since South Korea superseded all expectations by finishing third under the leadership of the mercurial Guus Hiddink after knocking out Spain and Italy en route. They have qualified again along with their 2002 co-hosts Japan but in South Africa this summer they are only joined by one other Asian team, North Korea.

The worlds most populous country China failed to qualify again and with India the second and Indonesia the fourth that’s half the worlds people looking around to adopt a surrogate. With strong football cultures rooted in Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines amongst others, over 3bn ‘unattached’ Asians are proving a marketing mans dream. Billboards, magazines and TV commercials are as blazoned with world cup themes selling anything and everything, as in Europe.

Whether or not Terry Venables crooning is likely to convince karaoke crazed nations in South East Asia is anyone’s guess, but its certainly worth a try. Japan are an unadventurous if hard-working team who rely on Keisuke Honda for flair both on and off the pitch. South Korea are similarly lead by Park Ji-Sung and neither team has garnered support amongst fellow Asians.

The North Koreans however do have what the salesmen call a USP, they are not one of the richest countries in the world either. The wealth in Japan and South Korea do form a disconnect with the average football fan (Asian or not) who probably see more of themselves in the everyman industry of Wayne Rooney or Carlos Tevez.

With the group of death now looking quite tame, the North Koreans will have found new fans around the world and not just in the same way your girlfriend fawns at puppies in the window of the pet shop, but in admiration of their play. The desperately disappointing 0-0 between Portugal and Ivory Coast makes for some of the more interesting remaining group games in which supporting North Korea could be much more of a realistic pursuit than mere tokenism.

Most countries are showing the matches on free to air channels at much the same times and in much the same way that the English Premier League is shown. Many will have some connection with one of the qualified teams, be it through a family member working abroad or relative, etc and these numbers could form a large proportion of a teams overall support, if appreciated.

The USA is unlikely to be popular in Vietnam but will have many a follower in the Philippines where American culture and sport have trumped all for years. Once the playoff finals between the Lakers and Celtics are settled, the obsession with Basketball is likely to switch to football. The Philippine sports superstar Manny Pacquiao is rooting for Mexico, while the countries strong Latin heritage has lead to a surge in Spanish and Italian shirts appearing in Manila.

With England’s 2018/22 campaign not exactly the runaway favourite, and with only 168 days of making nice left, perhaps if England in South Africa can tap into the Asian market, the campaign could take on a whole new look and feel. Less about England itself and maybe with more of a global feel to it than South Africa has mustered.  At the very least it’s a huge opportunity not to be missed, one you would hope those running the bid have an eye on. The uniting effect North Koreas performance last night had took everyone by surprise.

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