The Olympics have left in their wake a glut of sports metaphors and even a few diplomatic spats, but the games themselves are over. The athletes are heading home - in fact, many left before the closing ceremonies last Sunday night. Some will receive heroes' welcomes, others, less so. Where are the best and worst places to go home to as an international athlete?
The Best Countries:
North Korea: The DPRK loves a success story, especially when they're so few and far between. North Korea walked away from the Olympics with six medals, including three golds in weightlifting -- perfect for a country that prizes industriousness and sings the praises of "excellent horse-like ladies." The North Korean propaganda machine is ecstatic, boasting about the surging popularity of weightlifting and thumbing its nose at the West. After receiving a barrage of flowers upon their return, the medalists can look forward to other rewards, including cars and refrigerators.
United States: The U.S. Olympic Committee offers bonuses for medals earned, up to $25,000 for a gold medal, and some sports federations offer rewards as well, though these pale in comparison to other countries (Singapore has promised to shell out $1 million for a gold, and will be paying out $250,000 to each of its two bronze medalists this year. China, Russia and Italy each pay more than $100,000 for athletes who strike gold.) These earnings may even come tax-free, if an effort by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers succeeds. The real money comes in endorsements, though, which are often measured in millions of dollars and can add up quickly. And then there are the reality TV show offers.
Trinidad and Tobago: The tiny island nation is happy just to be recognized as a competitor. The team may not have won a single game at the 2006 World Cup, but they were welcomed back with parties, national honors and financial rewards, and that was just for making it through the prelims. That bodes well for the 2012 T &T team, which became the most decorated in the country's history with four medals this year. So far, they've had a holiday in their honor, and gold medalist Keshorn Walcott has had a lighthouse, a plane, and a housing development named after him.
Any country that's never medaled before: A country's first Olympic medal is sure to evoke national pride. Cyprus' first-ever medalist, Pavlos Kontides, was decked with a laurel wreath and greeted at the airport by saluting fire trucks and throngs of fans. Guatemala's Erick Barrondo, who took home silver in race walking, was made a Knight of the Order of the Sovereign Congress. And the whole island of Grenada got a half-day holiday in honor of Kirani James' gold medal in the 400 meters.
The Worst Countries:
Not all athletes have a reason to look forward to going home. In Canada, athletes have faced unemployment challenges, and in Australia, Tanzania, and elsewhere, athletes are already dealing with a disappointed press. A Dutch show jumping horse named London, which leapt to two silver medals with rider Gerco Schroder, might not even leave England after being seized as part of an ongoing bankruptcy proceeding. It could be worse, though.
Kenya and Nigeria: Kenya had its worst outing in decades, and though its athletes brought home 11 medals, it placed behind African rivals Ethiopia and South Africa in the final tally. Nigeria came up completely empty handed. The governments of both countries have ordered public inquiries into what went wrong, and Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan announced a comprehensive overhaul of the country's sports system. As bad as the looming firings may be for Kenyan and Nigerian Olympic officials, the acerbic press reaction might be worse. Choice headlines include "Kenya's Olympic Fiasco," "Dark secrets of Team Kenya emerge," and from Nigeria's Vanguard, "Olympic Flops Return Home."
North Korea: We might not know what happens to North Korea's non-medalists, but we hope the country's one win-two loss record women's soccer team (a 9th place finish) doesn't share the fate of the 2010 DPRK World Cup team. After dropping out in three straight losses, the World Cup team was publicly humiliated in a six-hour-long staged berating, in which players were told they had personally disappointed Kim Jong-Un (then still heir apparent to Kim Jong-Il). Players then had to individually criticize the team's manager, who may have then been sent to a labor camp. Other athletes who have disappointed the Dear Leader are rumored to be sent directly to camps upon their return without the public fanfare.
Iraq: It's hard to think of a worse welcome home than a meeting with Uday Hussein, but that's what faced athletes returning to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Saddam appointed his sadistic son to the position of Iraqi National Olympic Committee President, and from that office Uday had carte blanche to torture athletes that did not measure up to his expectations. The Olympic Committee building in Baghdad was as much a medieval prison as anything else, with dungeons replete with iron maidens and other torture devices. It's no wonder why the Iraqi flagbearer in the 1996 Atlanta games fled the athletes' village and defected to the United States.
Colombia: Sometimes, it's not the government, but the fans that are the greatest hazard. After accidentally scoring on his own goal in a preliminary round of the 1994 World Cup, Colombian soccer phenom Andrés Escobar was gunned down by Humberto Munoz, who was involved in the Colombian drug trade and a significant betting loss on the game.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter isn't the most-respected sporting figure around, and he seemingly doesn't know when to shut up. Just as the furor in the United States at the decision to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup was dying down, Blatter happened to remind the world of another problem with Qatar's bid.
Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, which apparently doesn't matter to FIFA because, hey, those pre-game speeches are only about racism. God forbid any other minority group be persecuted. Here was Blatter's solution for gay fans worried about attending the event:
They [gay fans] should refrain from any sexual activities."
Former NBA player John Amaechi, who famously came out in 2007, told the BBC 5 radio that, "It's not about people having sex in public and being sanctioned for it, it's the fact that Qatar was one of 79 countries to sanction executing gays at the United Nations." Here's what FIFA's official mission says, under "What We Stand For":
...Unity. We believe it is FIFA's responsibility to foster unity within the football world and to use football to promote solidarity, regardless of gender, ethnic background, faith or culture."
Whoops, forgetting something?
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FIFA today announced that Russia would host the 2018 World Cup and … Qatar … would host the 2022 Cup. Obviously this is shocking news across the sporting and football worlds.
So why Russia and Qatar?
Russia, actually, makes a certain amount of sense. In the end, it seemed like the choice had come down to Russia and England. (The reports that England finished fourth out of fourth for 2018 bidding are stunning, and if true, really demonstrate an … interesting mindset on the part of the FIFA commissioners.) Russia is still largely untapped by football. The Russian Premier League is not yet at the level of La Liga, Serie A, or the English Premier League, but it certainly qualifies as a middle tier European football division.
Moreover, there's a sense that football is growing in popularity in the country, and there is money to be made in the market. Logistically, brand new stadiums, and enough viable locations for them, are something FIFA salivates over in the bidding process. Russia can provide that. Despite being heartbreaking for England (and the joint bids of Spain/Portugal and the Netherlands/Belgium), Russia has the potential to host a strong Cup.
The 2022 decision is more mystifying, but there are a few legitimate enticements Qatar offered. The idea of hosting the Cup in the Arab world is a plus, and by all accounts Qatar's bid presentation was astonishing -- promising to build 9 completely new stadiums, renovating three others, then donating them to third world countries after the tournament, and guaranteeing a Green Cup. But there's a reason why FIFA labeled Qatar's bid "high risk."
(Puzzling, England was recognized to have the best presentation, but that didn't factor into the 2018 decision. The corruption questions are already swirling -- and have been for some months. The New York Times' Jére Longman wrote up a good overview on Nov. 30. )
Qatar presents two major logistical problems that FIFA faces. Qatar is alleging their new stadiums -- open-air, a FIFA requirement -- will be equipped with advanced air conditioned technology, allowing for adequate playing conditions. But where will the players train? 12 stadiums isn't hardly enough. Unless the plan is to build a giant air-conditioned dome above the country, the heat factor -- consistently over 100 degrees farenheit in summer -- is a massive challenge.
Additionally, Qatar's lack of viable summer activities outside the games -- compared to its competitors -- is sigificant, and will deter a large amount of fans from making the trip. That is, after all, the ultimate purpose of the tournament -- promoting diversity and celebrating the fact that, for at least two months, we can put aside our differences and celebrate an event with universal interest. That's not possible with empty stadiums.
As a devoted United States soccer fan, greatly interested in the domestic (I actually watched the MLS playoffs in the last two seasons, and can say the 2009 championship game was arguably the most epic sporting event I've seen) and international game, this is a crushing blow to take. I am old enough to remember the passion of 1994, and young enough to come of age in an era where soccer took off in the United States. While there's no risk that my interest in soccer will wane, there is a chance that many casual followers will, if not tune out, be less engaged with the sport. It's impossible for me to separate that fact from my analysis -- I, like all other U.S. soccer fans today, feel gutted.
It had long been expected that the 2022 tournament was the United States' to lose, and for good reason: the 1994 World Cup was the most successful in the history of the competition (by far), soccer is growing leaps and bounds in the country and its domestic league has just finished its 15th year and is expanding. The country with the most tickets bought for the 2010 World Cup (besides host-country South Africa) was the United States, again by some margin. No infrastructure construction is required (and a number of new stadiums will be built anyway in the next 12 years), there are a huge amount of viable locations to host games, and, despite its struggles, the United States national team has proved itself a legitimate player in international tournaments. (Lest we forget that the United States, in the 2009 Confederation's Cup in South Africa, beat future World Cup winners Spain 2-0, ending their 35 game unbeaten streak?) Furthermore, the United States has qualified for the last six World Cups, a feat that only powerhouses Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, and Spain can match.
Qatar is 113th in FIFA's world football rankings. There's no history nor tradition of the beautiful game in the country. It has never qualified for a World Cup, finished 8th in the Asian Football Confederation's final qualifying round for 2010 -- and will receive an automatic bid for 2022. It has very little infrastructure in place, and that which will be built will be constructed by migrant laborers with very few rights. As recently as 2008, Qatar was in the lowest country tier in the State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report.
FIFA also made another, more practical, mistake -- the United States is a huge market, the growth potential of the sport is enormous in the country, and there's, ultimately, a massive amount of money to be made. The Arab world already loves football -- there are few regional viewers to gain.
Finally, following the 2010 and 2014 (South Africa, Brazil) Cups with two more question marks is a gamble. Now, China, rumored to have interest in hosting the 2026 Cup, will likely not have the chance to do so until 2036 (the same confederation can not host two Cups in a row). And if there are any slipups in the run-up to either 2018 or 2022, you can bet that Brits and Americans will be screaming, "I told you so."
On the bright side, I'd bet everything I have on the United States getting the 2026 or 2030 World Cup.
PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images
While everyone in Washington and probably most global capitals is obsessing over WikiLeaks, the sports world is eagerly awaiting this week's big event: FIFA's decision on who gets to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. (To give you some perspective: World Cup was Yahoo's second-most popular search target this year, after the gulf oil spill.)
Today, the 2022 bidders -- Australia, Japan, Qatar, South Korea, and the United States -- are giving their final presentations in a last-ditch attempt to persuade any remaining fence-sitters that their country deserves the nod, and tomorrow FIFA will announce the winners.
The 2018 Cup is destined to go to a European country; the most interesting contest is for 2022. Soccer blogs, which have been buzzing with gossip and speculation for the last year or so, seem to think it's going to come down to a choice between the United States and -- believe it or not -- Qatar, the tiny Persian Gulf emirate whose seemingly quixotic bid to be the first Middle Eastern country to host the tournament has captured the imagination of millions of Arabs all over the world. (Disclosure: My wife's company does some small-scale work for the Qatari government in this area.)
Unfortunately for Qatar, FIFA's bid evaluation report rated the country's facilities as "high risk" due to the fact that few of them are built. The extremely hot weather in June and July, when the Cup would be held is another major concern. In response, Qatar is sinking billions into its bid and has promised to build stadiums deploying innovative outdoor cooling technology and then donate them to developing countries. Doha, the capital, is festooned with banners (reading "22" and "Expect Amazing") promoting the bid, and seemingly every shopping mall in town has a booth handing out free bumper stickers and other paraphernalia. Expectations are high.
And that's what worries me. Qatar has made an amazing go of it, and it would be an inspiring win for a region that has too few of them, but I'd be extremely surprised if the United States loses. Ultimately, FIFA's goal is to make as much money as possible, and Qatar can't hope to match the size of the U.S. market. But you never know. Politicians, not technocrats, are the ultimate deciders here.
One final note: It would be a great irony if Arab leaders' sniping about Qatar's alleged support for terrorism and general troublemaking in the region, as revealed in the WikiLeaks cables, tipped the scales against the Middle East's first real shot at hosting the Cup. I think the decision has probably already been made, but you never know...
Clive Rose/Getty Images for Qatar 2022
It seemed for a while that there would be no repercussions for North Korea's national soccer team after their dismal performance in the World Cup earlier this summer. Of course, this being North Korea, the team -- and especially its coach -- have not gotten off lightly. In a six-hour "grand debate," the entire squad (minus it's two Japan-based players, who surely must think themselves two of the luckiest people on the planet) was berated by Sports Minister Pak Myong-chol, and were then forced to publicly denounce their coach. The manager, Kim Jong-hun, was accused of "betraying the young General Kim Jong-un," the son and heir apparent of Kim Jong-Il. He has reportedly been forced out of the Worker's Party and forced to work as a construction laborer.
It's not like North Korea ever had a chance of success. They were pitted in the "Group of Death" with Brazil, Portugal and Côte d'Ivoire, arguably the toughest group in the whole tournament (regardless of Brazil's early exit and Portugal's dull 1-0 loss to Spain). Holding Brazil to a 2-1 scoreline in their opening match should have been enough of a moral victory for Kim Jong-Il, but he doesn't see it that way. (Shocking.)
North Korea's subsequent 7-0 decimation at the hands of Portugal, the first ever sports program live broadcast on North Korean TV (and almost certainly last ever), surely raised the ire of Dear Leader. Of course, if he wanted to pin the blame, he should look in the mirror. Reportedly, it was his demand that the team play more aggressively that created gaps in the side's defense.
Perhaps, though, this is a sign of progress. A South Korean intelligence source told Chosun Ilbo, "In the past, North Korean athletes and coaches who performed badly were sent to prison camps." We'll see.
Michael Steele/Getty Images
How come the North Korean national team that managed to lose by only one goal to Brazil -- a win, essentially -- got beat down so brutally by Portugal? According to some sources,* Dear Leader himself may be to blame:
Quoting a source, RFA reported that after watching the match against powerhouse Brazil, in which North Korea recorded a respectable 1-2 loss with a tight defense strategy, Kim Jong-il said that although the team played the first half well, it lost because it only focused on defense in the second half. He then gave orders for the team's defenders to be positioned forward and even specified where each defender should be standing in the field.
According to the source, Kim "gave orders twice" to a responsible official dispatched to South Africa during the game against Portugal on June 21. The orders were delivered to North Korea manager Kim Jong-hun and implemented in the game. Despite the widening gap in the score, the North Koreans team stuck to their hopeless strategy and lost 0-7.
Perhaps he should stick to golf.
*All the usual caveats about wacky North Korea stories based on defector reports.
If you're a not-so-diehard World Cup fan (read: ever since Landon Donovan dropped out of sight, you've stopped keeping track of the scores), this story ought to (re) pique your interest:
Eight percent of Russians believe their national team will win the World Cup, despite the fact that it never qualified for the tournament, an independent poll has showed.
Russian pride was shattered when its team was denied a place at the world's most-watched sporting event, currently underway in South Africa, when they were defeated by Slovenia in the qualifying stage.
The poll, conducted by Russia's Levada Center between the 18th and the 22nd of June, surveyed 1,600 Russian adults across 130 cities.
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
The first African World Cup was always going to be a unique event, and the first four days of the tournament have been full of the good, the bad, and the Green. Particularly noteworthy (and relished by this observer) was France's dismal performance in a 0-0 draw against Uruguay last Friday.
Because it's the French national team, headed by universally-hated Raymond Domenech, Le Blues were not lacking of excuses. Captain Patrice Evra blamed his team's lack of performance on communication problems, and more specifically, the deafening noise of thousands of vuvuzelas:
We can't sleep at night because of the vuvuzelas. People start playing them from 6 a.m. We can't hear one another out on the pitch because of them.
Somehow, Uruguay wasn't similarly fazed because they apparently possess superhuman hearing. (Credit to the South Americans, they executed their gameplan perfectly and nearly came away with all three points had Diego Forlan's strike in the 73rd minute been on frame.)
Evra's complaint was one of a string from participants about the ubuqiutous South African trumpet/kazoo/noisemaker of death. Even the best player in the world, Argentina's Lionel Messi, expressed disapproval of the instrument, saying "It's impossible to communicate, it's like being deaf."
I have always said that Africa has a different rhythm, a different sound. I don't see banning the music traditions of fans in their own country. Would you want to see a ban on the fan traditions in your country?
Indeed, it would be stupid to ban the quintessentially South African element of the competition because of player complaints. If FIFA had wanted a dull tournament, they'd have mandated every team play in the Italian, anti-football style. Vuvuzelas don't provide either team with an advantage, and add distinctive flair -- or, better put, a distinctive buzz. (Perhaps worringly for spectators, South African shops are now reporting running dry of "vuvu-stoppers:" plugs to protect fans' ears from the noisemakers.)
Thankfully, not all have highlighted the vuvuzelas as the biggest problem of the tournament so far.
*Tuesday update: ESPN has just announced that they've added filters to their broadcast to lower the vuvuzela noise. We'll see whether viewers appreciate the change, or whether they feel they've lost some of the World Cup buzz. (It does seem like the sound of the vuvuzelas has been slightly dulled.)
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images
Goldman Sachs may have taken a lot of heat lately, but they may have done themselves a great favor by releasing their 2010 World Cup Research Report earlier this month. Running a little over 70 pages, it's a remarkably in-depth summary of each country in this year's finals, including football prowess, economic state, and political situation. Furthermore, it provides a primer on the potential hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, and, unsurprisingly but more than interesting, an examination of economic growth and decline vis-a-vis the international football teams of respective countries.
Some of the most noteworthy things to take away: like most of the speculation has focused on, the report predicts a European-hosted cup in 2018, and a return to the U.S. in 2022. (Also included are bid pitches from Russia, England, and the U.S.) Interestingly, this is what it says about the U.S. bid:
The sport has taken roots in the USA and the market is quickly becoming one of FIFA’s most important. They already pay one of the largest television rights fees to FIFA of any country. However, the perception is still otherwise.
For U.S. soccer fans, that perception is extremely frustrating. It is somewhat accurate: for a team that has qualified for the last six World Cups (granted, a Foreign Policy* staff team could probably qualify for the finals out of the Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football -- CONCACAF), interest would appear to be lower than warranted. (Six out of six is, by the way, quite impressive: England, France, and the Netherlands can't claim that streak.)
But that's changing. Go to many bars in the District on Saturday or Sunday morning, and you'll see European football -- usually the English Premier League -- on the TV. From my own observations (be wary of perception bias), the sport with the most jerseys worn on the streets of Northern Virginia and D.C. is soccer, by far. Moreover, 24.5 million Americans play football, the second most (behind China's 26.2 million) in the world. Since 1994, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of U.S. soccer fans, but among casual or non-fans, there still remains an idea that soccer is not an "American" sport. (It should also be noted that the U.S. Women's team is the dominant global powerhouse.)
UEFA's (Union of European Football Associations) selection of the 2012 Euro Cup host proved prescient, as well. Picking in 2007, Poland won the rights to host the tournament (OK, co-host with Ukraine, but since then UEFA has suggested Poland be the sole host, which the Poles have graciously declined to accept). Poland, however, was the only bid country that hasn't suffered economic decline since -- and yes, Greece was the first bid country eliminated.
Other notable findings: the Growth Environment Scores (a Goldman-devised figure of sustainable economic growth and productivity) of respective countries loosely correlate to soccer performance, but a much stronger connection exists between the improvement of economic conditions and national soccer teams. (Algeria, which did not qualify for the 2006 finals in Germany, posted the highest GES improvement among developing countries over the last four years.) The report also argues that success is partially dependent on the number of males aged 18-34 in countries, and provides a UN chart with predictions for 2050. If the claim is accurate, the Nigerian Super Eagles are going to be really, really good in a few decades.
Lastly, Goldman offers their own predictions of the semi-finals (I won't spoil, though I will say it's what my predictions are as well), and lists the probability (with their metrics) that each country will become World Cup champions.
It's lengthy, but an extremely interesting read, and provides the best rundown of the Cup to come that I've seen. Check it out.
*No matter what anyone says, I'd play right wing.
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
The timing of Iraq's announcement that an al Qaeda prisoner in its custory was plotting to attack the World Cup struck me as suspicious yesterday, but it looks like Abdullah Azam Saleh al-Qahtani did at least intend to attack the event. The AP reports:
"We discussed the possibility of taking revenge for the insults of the prophet by attacking Denmark and Holland," al-Qahtani told The AP. "The goal was to attack the Danish and the Dutch teams and their fans," he added.
"If we were not able to reach the teams, then we'd target the fans," he said, adding that they hoped to use guns and car bombs.
It was unclear whether the militants had the ability to carry out what would have been quite a sophisticated operation - a complicated attack far from their home base. The Iraqi security official said no steps had yet been taken to put the plan into motion, such as obtaining bomb-making materials.
The timing and tone of this announcement do seem just a tad suspicious:
Iraqi security forces have arrested a Saudi al-Qaeda member who an official said on Monday was involved in a plot to attack next month's World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa. Baghdad security spokesman Major General Qassim al-Moussawi gave no details and offered no evidence for the claim and it was not possible to verify it.
Moussawi's allegation about a Saudi's involvement in a plot against the World Cup came after former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal accused Iraq's prime minister of hijacking the country's March election.
Moussawi, who reports to the prime minister's office, said Abdullah Azzam al-Qahtani was a former Saudi army lieutenant."He was planning to bomb the holy shrines in Najaf and Kerbala," Moussawi told a news conference in Baghdad.
"And he was planning a terrorist act in South Africa during the World Cup based on plans issued by the central al Qaeda terrorist organization in coordination with Osama bin Laden's first assistant, Ayman al-Zawahri."
If true, Iraqi authorities apparently didn't bother to tell anyone in South Africa about the threats made by Moussawi -- who was captured two weeks ago. I guess a government in need of some good publicity could do worse than, "we saved the World Cup."
If you were in Washington D.C. a few weeks ago you might have noticed the enormous security measures taken for the 46 world leaders who convened for the Nuclear Summit. A huge portion of the city was closed, sidewalks were lined with D.C. police, and streets were regularly blocked off for passing twenty-car motorcades.
South Africa will be in a similar position with the start of the World Cup next month, with 43 leaders already having confirmed their attendance. Turns out though, 43 leaders isn't seen a big problem -- rather, it's the potential of a 44th visitor that has South Africa's police department sweating. And, surprisingly, he happens to be the 44th president of the United States.
Speaking before a cabinet meeting on World Cup security, South Africa's police chief, General Bheki Cele, estimates that a visit by the U.S. president, and the subsequent crowds that would clamor to see him, would double the scale of the security requirements, saying, "that 43 will be equal to this one operation." It would be such a headache that the police chief is "praying" that the U.S. is eliminated after the first stage because of rumors that Obama might visit if the U.S. national team makes it any further.
Here's hoping his prayers aren't heard.
ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images
Next month, 32 national football sides will compete in the first-ever African hosted World Cup --- but they might be playing in half-empty stadiums. Over half of the 500,000 tickets allotted for South Africans remain unsold, with sales significantly slowing over the last month.
I don't know why this'd be a surprise. Less than four percent of South Africans earn nearly forty percent of total personal income. Another fifth makes up the "emerging middle class," leaving seventy-five percent of the country in the lower income tier. Almost half the country is in poverty, the economy is contracting, and income inequality is in fact getting worse. I'm guessing that most South Africans figured tickets would be a luxury they couldn't afford.
This announcement comes amid a slate of bad news: the World Health Organization warned tourists of an outbreak of Rift Valley fever only yesterday, and a tragic bus accident -- allegedly caused by the bus driver falling asleep at the wheel -- claimed 23 lives today.
Aside from the tickets fiasco, the Organising Committee claims that everything is ready for June 11th. This quote from spokesman Greg Fredericks, however, doesn't alleviate all concerns: "We certainly hope that the strike season will be over." That's not exactly the voice of confidence.
To correct the ticket problem, FIFA should either slash prices even further, or free them up for more foreign fans. They've earned some good press today when they announced that workers on the World Cup stadiums would receive free tickets to two matches. Empty stands at the World Cup would be the height of embarrassment.
To be fair, it would give a break to weary ears blasted by obnoxiously (and dangerously) loud vuvuzelas.
ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images
Despite Zimbabwe not making it out of the second round of African World Cup qualifying, Robert Mugabe has still managed to turn the upcoming World Cup, hosted by neighboring South Africa, into a domestic political scandal. What a surprise. Apparently not having had its fill of international pariahs after Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's visit last week, Mugabe's government has also invited North Korea's soccer team to stay in the country prior to the World Cup. This move has brought back a decades old grudge between the two countries.
In 1982, 20,000 Zimbabweans were slaughtered by the army in Matabeleland province. It just so happens that the army brigade responsible was trained by North Korean military advisors.
Making the hosting offer even more insensitive were the original plans to base the North Korean team in Bulawayo, the second largest city in the country, located in -- you guessed it -- the region of Matabeleland. The locals were displeased:
Groups representing Matabeleland's ethnic Ndebele minority had threatened to disrupt training sessions and games in Bulawayo, and organize protests among Zimbabweans based in South Africa.
Earlier today, Zimbabwe announced it would base the side in Harare -- but insisted the change was not "politically motivated." But it doesn't look likely to appease the protesters. Methuseli Moyo of ZAPU, a small opposition party, told the BBC:
"It should be the concern of every Zimbabwean that North Korea trained those who perpetrated the atrocities. Even if they camp in Harare, we will still organise the protests."
The North Korean side has enough problems already, having drawn Brazil, Portugal, and Côte d'Ivoire in this cup's version of the "Group of Death."
DESMOND KWANDE/AFP/Getty Images
From the captain obvious department: a study in the latest issue of South Africa's Medical Journal claimed that vuvuzelas, the obnoxiously loud trumpet played at football matches in South Africa, can cause permanent hearing damage:
Participants in the stadium study were "exposed to high-intensity sound far exceeding the current legislated average exposure and peak exposure levels for occupational noise".
Tests on the 11 after the match showed a "significant" decrease in hearing sensitivity.
Worse, the study used stadiums that simulated the noise of only 30,000 people -- many of the crowds expected at World Cup matches are expected to be three times that amount.
If you watched last year's Confederations Cup, you're well aware how annoyingly ubuquitous vuvuzelas are in South African stadiums. (And if you didn't, you'll understand if you watch even a single minute of any World Cup match this summer.)
Thankfully, a South African company is taking advantage of the obvious entreprenurial opportunity and marketing foam earplugs.
H/T Andrew Harding.
ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images
Recent U.S. military activity in Somalia is causing ripples throughout
the African community. AFP is reporting that Monday's closing of the
American embassy in Pretoria, South Africa was due to threats from an al-Qaeda
splinter group seeking revenge for Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan's death last week in Somalia.
Last week's raid in Somalia signifies a shift in US policy toward the region, and may be linked to the increasing militarization of AFRICOM since its inception in 2007. Officials continue to argue its role is as a "force for peace." However, the perception by others is increasing negative. Recently, the American National Conference on Black Lawyers petitioned Attorney General Eric Holder to dismantle the operation in an open letter blasting AFRICOM as:
"A military command that is designed to facilitate warfare. In the context of African politics, the mere presence of AFRICOM will be perceived as an act of aggression that will decrease, not increase, the likelihood of peaceful resolution of conflicts."
The embassy threat could be the beginnings of increased hostility toward U.S. interests in southern Africa, opening up a new counter-terrorism arena rather than pre-empting one.
Five years ago, when South Africa won the right to host the 2010 World Cup, many were concerned whether the country had the infrastructure to host the huge tournament. With one year to go, though, most observers agree that the country will be pass that test. Instead, the biggest complaints have centered on an instrument called the vuvuzela.
Described by one newspaper as "a unique brightly coloured elongated trumpet that makes a sound like a herd of elephants approaching", the vuvuzela has become the biggest controversy at this summer's Confederations Cup [a small tournament between continental champions that functions as a World Cup warm-up].
Fans argue that it is an essential way to express their national identity. But players and TV commentators have called for it be banned at the World Cup.
Liverpool's Xabi Alonso, playing for Spain in the current tournament, said: "They make a terrible noise and it's not a good idea to have them on sale outside the grounds. Here's a piece of advice for Fifa [football's world governing body,] - try to ban them."
The South African Association of Audiology has warned that vuvuzelas can damage hearing.
But supporters are sticking to their horns. Chris Massah Malawai, 23, watching the national team beat New Zealand, said: "This is our voice. We sing through it. It makes me feel the game."
It's hard to say the vuvuzela is melodious; its sound can be best described as a monotone swarm of bees (judge for yourself with this news report). But the biggest problem with the vuvuzela may not be the noise. Rather, whereas most fans in other countries correlate their noise to what's going on on the pitch, it is typical in South Africa to blow the horn for the entire match. Not surprisingly, the monotone sound becomes far more grating in 45-minute doses.
Still, as FIFA president Sepp Blatter has said:
"I always said that when we go to South Africa, it is Africa. It's not western Europe. It's noisy, it's energy, rhythm, music, dance, drums. This is Africa. We have to adapt a little."
So next summer, sit back, and get ready to hit the mute button.
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
In the wake of the Iran's soccer team wearing opposition armbands in a match this week, Judah Grunstein at World Politics Review has a list of his "admittedly U.S.-centric" top 5 international sports events with political significance. His explanations are worth reading, but here's the bare list:
- U.S. vs. USSR, 1980 Olympic hockey.
- Hungary vs. USSR, 1956 Olympic water polo.
- Jesse Owens vs. Adolph Hitler, 1936 Olympics.
- Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, 1936 and 1938 World Heavyweight boxing title.
- U.S.-USSR, 1972 Olympic basketball.
Can you think of any others you would add?
The excitement aroused by the World Cup soccer tournament in Germany in 2006 may have increased that country's birthrate as much as 15 percent nine months later. But the intensely emotional matches have now also been correlated with a spike in the number of cardiac emergencies.
A study published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine examined the number of cardiac emergencies in the greater Munich area in the summer of 2006. It compared that number with the numbers in similar periods in 2003 and 2005, and for several weeks before and after the 2006 World Cup.
On days when the German team played, the incidence of cardiac emergencies was 2.66 times higher than during the comparison periods. For men, the incidence was 3.26 times higher; for women, it was 1.82 times higher. People with a history of heart disease were particularly affected.
The study's authors say emotional stress was the main trigger, but they add that sleep deprivation, excessive consumption of junk food and alcohol, and smoking might also be contributing factors. They suggest that spectators with heart problems should take preventive measures, such as consulting their doctors about increased medication dosages during intense sports events.
It's reasonable to think that something quite similar might happen.
Though if the Vegas odds-makers have it right, the greater danger on Sunday may turn out to be irate New York Giants fans.
Remember when French soccer star Zinedine Zidane shoved his head against Italian half-forward Marco Materazzi at last year's World Cup soccer finals? European and Latin American soccer fans certainly do, but Americans may have missed it.
Not to worry: Alabama state Senators Charles Bishop and Lowell Barron just staged a replay of that fight, and their dust-up was caught on camera. In stereotypical "hawks vs doves" fashion, Republican Bishop hit Democrat Barron in the head before bystanders pulled them apart.
"He called me a son of a b****," explained Jasper when the fistfight was over. "I responded to this comment with my right hand," he added. That follows the Zidane-Materazzi script, wherein Zidane accused Materazzi of provoking him by insulting his sister.
News of the Alabama Senate's fisticuffs has already been joyfully picked up by foreign news outlets. For once, the rest of the world gets a chance to lecture the United States on good democratic practice.
(If you enjoy stories about legislative rumbles as much as we do, check out this Passport post on Taiwan's rowdy parliament.)
French football star Zinedine Zidane has apologized for headbutting Italian player Marco Materazzi during Sunday's World Cup final, an infraction that sent Zidane off the field with a red card just minutes from his retirement. But does he regret it? Nope. Zidane stands by the move because, though he won't reveal exactly what Materazzi said, the Italian apparently insulted Zidane's mother and sister. And for this chivalric explanation, the French love Zidane once again.
When the World Cup kicked off a month ago, there was a ton of controversy about Germany's legalized brothels and whether women had been trafficked into the country to service football fans. FP ran a piece at the time that took you inside a brothel and the scandal. So, we'd be remiss not to fill you in on the final score.
Turns out that football, beer, and prostitutes don't mix after all. The Daily Telegraph's Berlin correspondent reports that the brothels didn't get anywhere near the business they were expecting. One hooker laments that the "fans were happier to celebrate with beer than sex." But there was one silver lining for these ladies of the night: Italy's progress. Indeed, the World Cup winners were such good customers that the owner of Berlin's biggest brothel even found himself willing the Azzurri on in their semi-final against Germany.
Even though Germany has been knocked out of contention for the World Cup finals, much has been made of the way the tournament has let Germans feel comfortable with their patriotism again. As Constanze Stelzenmüller puts it in a piece for the IHT today: "Germans Feeling Good About Themselves and Not Apologizing For It Every Minute is not what we grew up with."
The trend is hardly lost on the people over at Deutsche Welle. For more than three months, the station's Web site has been posting daily additions to a series called, somewhat cryptically, "100 Reasons for Germany." The last, 100th reason will be posted on Sunday, the final day of the World Cup.
Among the "reasons for Germany" are some obvious ones: Fairy tales, BMW, and Günter Grass. But what's more revealing--and a little hilarious--are the ones where the writers get a little desperate, even defensive. Have a look:
#6 Thoroughness: "Despite what some mean people have to say about them, Germans are actually a fun-loving people. It's just that the German idea of fun verges on the compulsive and does not always coincide with what people from other countries do when they want to kick back and relax."
The hilarity continues after the jump.
The place to go for happy hour tonight is Berlin. There's going to be quite a party as the Germans celebrate beating Argentina—the favorites to win the World Cup—to progress to the semis. I'll leave the post-match analysis to the experts, but why on earth did the Argentine coach take out his most dangerous player, Riquelme?
But the more FP point I want to make is that Angela Merkel is as much a winner as the German team. Not only is Merkel getting great publicity with every Germany game (the TV cuts to her even more than it does to Posh Spice aka Mrs Beckham during England games), but she is also using the tournament to push through a series of controversial measures. The Times of London had a great article a few days ago about all the bills that Merkel is sneaking through while the public is captivated by the heroics of Ballack, Lehman et al.
These measures aren't small beer. The other day, she got parliament to endorse a 3 percent increase in sales tax. My friend Andrew Curry, who wrote the World Cup brothels piece for us and lives in Germany, tells me that this is the biggest tax increase since 1949. But there was hardly a whimper of public protest as everyone was too busy watching the football.
A survey warned UK businesses that one in seven workers were planning to take sick days to watch the World Cup this month. But around the world the global game is damaging more than just worker productivity.
In China, the matches are typically shown late at night or in early morning hours - perfect times to enjoy the game with a drink. At least three Chinese citizens have died from either drinking or high blood-pressure due to overexcitement while watching games.
Soccer-crazy Thai monks are also struggling to cope with World Cup fever. Many young monks are going hungry because they are staying up too late to recieve early morning alms. In Cambodia, the situation is worse. The government has threatened to defrock over 40,000 monks. "If they make noise or cheer as they watch, they will lose their monkhood," Phnom Penh patriarch Non Nget told Reuters this month.
On Saturday, Ghana defender John Pantsil pulled out a small Israeli flag and waved it around following Ghana's World Cup victory over the Czech Republic. The move sparked furor from some Arab nations and encouraging words from Israeli officials.
A Ghana Football Association official noted that Pantsil, a member of Israeli soccer team HaPoel Tel Aviv, wanted to thank the Israeli fans who had traveled to Germany to see him play. Others saw the move as a potential political declaration of support for Israel by Ghana.
With the world's eyes focused on Germany, every action by the players is destined for scrutiny. Government officials should remember, however, that these men are athletes, not professional diplomats. In the scheme of things, the move was hardly offsides.
The ocean: Bush creates the world's largest marine reserve northwest of Hawaii. Baby seals everywhere rejoice.
Maoists in Nepal: Parliament is dissolved and rebels are invited to join new government.
ICC: May issue indictments for Darfur war criminals soon. Someone has to take a stand.
Serbia & Montenegro: 6-0 loss to Argentina in today's World Cup match. Ouch.
Fake Show turkeys: The faux bird that accompanied Bush on his first surprise trip to Iraq in 2003 is left home alone. (Yes, the turkey was real. Thanks to everyone who wrote in about that. But no one ate it. It was a decoration.)
Guantanamo: You know things are bad when they kick the journalists out.
Apparently the world has a lot to learn from the World Cup. In a Monday op-ed for the Guardian, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan argued that if the international community was modeled more like the World Cup, we would see progress on many issues that are either stagnant or degenerating.
This is an event in which everybody knows where their team stands, and what it did to get there. They know who scored and how and in what minute of the game; they know who saved the penalty. I wish we had more of that sort of competition in the family of nations. Countries vying for the best standing in the table of respect for human rights, and trying to outdo one another in child survival rates or enrollment in secondary education. States parading their performance for all the world to see. Governments being held accountable.
It's a nice thought, and this piece isn't meant to be much more than that. However, for all of Annan's contrasting parallels, an obvious one is lacking: FIFA's efficiency in executing the World Cup vs. the UN's less than stellar record on many aspects of its mission and a slow process for much-needed internal reforms.
If you haven't been turned off the World Cup by the spanking the Czechs handed out to Team USA, you might want to check out this site from the World Development Movement. It tells you which team to root for in each game. Apparently, today you should be going for the Ukrainians against the Spanish, the Tunisians when they face the Saudis, and the Poles when they take on the hosts.
This site strikes me as slightly flawed—and I’m not just saying that because it calls England the 27th most supportable team in the tournament. I must admit that my loyalties are driven less by ethical considerations than by my gut.
But on the political issue of whether we should cheer for Iran, I come down on the "yes" side. I think whatever benefits the football-supporting Ahmadinejad may hope to derive from victory are far outweighed by the benefits of engagement, showing the Iranians that life doesn't have to be this way.
Human intel: Nabbed the most wanted man in Iraq.
Germany: May not get a huge economic bump from the Cup, but at least they won their first match.
Maliki: Sure, his cabinet is complete and Zarqawi is gone. But will he take the opportunity and run with it?
Diplomacy: Iran is given "weeks, not months" to consider the incentives offered. Still better than the drum beat of war.
Zarqawi: Whether he was a master terrorist or a marginalized wanna-be, this is his last appearance on the Winners & Losers.
Journalistic restraint: Was the text bubble really necessary?
Civility at the UN: Apparently, one shouldn't cross John Bolton.
China's environment: Government white paper says pollution could cost the country 10 percent of its GDP.
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