Cold War edge as U.S. women face North Korea


  • Other Sport
  • Tuesday, 31 Jul 2012

MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - U.S. soccer fans set to watch their women's team face North Korea on Tuesday sensed political drama in a clash between the isolated Asian country and the global superpower it has loathed since they fought a Cold War conflict six decades ago.

The Olympic pool match kicks off at Old Trafford, home of English Premier League club Manchester United, at 1615 GMT.

It comes after a politically charged incident last week when the same North Korean team walked off the pitch before a match against Colombia at a stadium in Scotland because giant screens accidentally displayed the flag of their South Korean foes.

The blunder by Games organisers brought the political sensitivities of the Korean peninsula to the fore ahead of the clash with the Americans, whose former President George W. Bush once branded North Korea part of an "axis of evil" nations.

The hostility is very much a live issue in world diplomacy, with Washington intent on frustrating the North's nuclear armaments plans and Pyongyang impervious to external pressure.

"It definitely adds a little bit of extra drama to this match, like in the Cold War when the Americans would play the Russians," said Christina Gustafson, 24, on a train from London to Manchester a few hours ahead of the game.

She and her friend Amanda Balaoing, both from California, sported red and white U.S. shirts and colourful strings of red, blue and silver beads around their necks to show their support.

"We didn't even know who was playing when we got the tickets. When we saw it was North Korea, we were like, ha, interesting," said Balaoing, 23.

Rent apart by U.S. and Soviet rivalry after the end of World War Two, the Koreas have never formally made peace since the capitalist South, backed by the Americans, and the Communist North, aided by China and the Soviets, went to war in 1950-1953.

It would be difficult to imagine a sporting contest between two more different nations.

On the one hand, a global economic powerhouse whose cultural influence can be felt across the globe, a society hooked on 24-hour media and the Internet, a land of plenty where the number one threat to public health is the high obesity rate.

On the other, an impenetrable fortress run by a dynasty of dictators, cut off from the rest of the planet by barbed wire and strict controls over any form of communication, an economic disaster zone where millions go short of food.

'HOSTILE FORCES'

"If anything I feel sorry for the North Korean players because they have to live in North Korea," said Brad Wilson, of Virginia, on his way to Manchester with his wife and daughters.

They were among dozens of U.S. fans decked out in patriotic colours on the train from London. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the poverty and lack of freedom in North Korea, there were no fans from the Asian pariah state to be seen on the train.

KCNA, the official North Korean news agency, set the tone for how sports and politics can mix with an article on Tuesday entitled "Local People Delightful at DPRK Successes in Olympiad". DPRK is the acronym of the North's full name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

North Korea sits a respectable fourth in the Olympics medals table so far.

"Some evil-minded foreign media asserted that the DPRK would take only one silver medal, but our sportspersons refuted such assertion with good results," said Kim Chon Sok, a department director at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications.

"The hostile forces had better try hard to get a correct understanding of the DPRK," Kim said, according to KCNA.

In theory, the Olympics is supposed to be a politics-free zone, but that has never really been the case.

In the early years of the Cold War, Hungary and the Soviet Union faced off in Olympic water polo at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, a month after Soviet troops had violently suppressed a Hungarian uprising against Communist rule.

The clash went down in Olympic lore as the "blood in the water" match after a Soviet player punched a Hungarian rival, drawing blood. The match was suspended and Hungary, who had been in the lead, were awarded victory. They went on to win gold.

Organisers of London 2012 will be hoping that nothing quite as dramatic happens at Old Trafford, but the historical background resonated with some U.S. fans.

"It does make it a little bit more interesting. The Olympics is supposed to be devoid of politics but there are some games that have undertones," said Paul Barrie, a U.S. resident of Naples, Italy, on an Olympic tour with his family.

He and his wife Marisa and their three children were painting a banner to wish their team's goalkeeper, Hope Solo, a happy birthday. She turned 31 on Tuesday.

"IDEOLOGICAL CRITICISM"

Marisa Barrie said she hoped the spirit of the Olympics would transcend the poor relations between the countries.

"I come from a country that has been so strong and in control. I see it as a great opportunity for people to compete on a level playing field. But maybe for them it means more."

Certainly the North Koreans carry the hopes of a country where losing teams face worst than a few bad headlines.

The North Korean men's soccer team were subjected to six hours of public "ideological criticism" in Pyongyang after they returned without a win from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, according to Radio Free Asia, a Western-influenced broadcaster.

South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo has quoted an intelligence source as saying that in the past, North Korean athletes who performed badly were sent to prison camps.

But Jong Tae-se, a Japan-born North Korean striker known to home fans as "the People's Rooney" for his similarities to the England professional striker, denied on a South Korean TV talk show that North Korean athletes paid for defeat with their freedom.

On the upside, talented North Korean athletes can earn perks for themselves and their families in a country where most people live in dire poverty in the famine-ravaged countryside.

The North Korean women's team won the 2008 Asian Football Confederation's tournament. But they were caught up in scandal at the 2011 women's World Cup in Germany, where five of the players tested positive for banned steroids.

North Korean officials said at the time that players had taken some traditional Chinese medication based on musk deer glands to help them recover from a lighting strike during a training match in North Korea weeks before the tournament.

The North Korean men's team claimed their place in sporting history during the 1966 World Cup in England when they knocked out favourites Italy in one of the greatest upsets ever.

A North Korean win on Tuesday would not have quite as much effect as it is a pool match and the defending Olympic champion U.S. team, bidding for a third consecutive gold, have already secured their place in the knock-out phase.

(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park in Seoul; editing by Jason Neely)

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