KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY
–As if the Asian confederation did not face enough complications – mostly stemming from Mohamed Bin Hammam, still a presence in his presidential absence – relations between uneasy neighbours Japan and South Korea have been chilled by the Olympic Games row over a political poster.
Sparking the issue was the spur-of-the-moment behaviour of midfielder Park Jong-woo when the South Koreans, after the final whistle, were celebrating their 2-0 win over Japan in the London 2012 bronze medal play-off at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
Unfortunately for Park, who probably did not give the deeper consequences a moment’s thought, the placard handed to him by a fan bore the message: “Dokdo is our territory.”
This referred to the islands which are disputed territory in the waters between the two countries. South Korea controls them, Japan claims them.
The scripting of the message in Korean meant the significance was lost on the vast majority of the crowd. However, it was not lost on the Japanese (or the Koreans, of course) who recognised that Park had raised an inflammatory statement.
[Imagine the political, diplomatic and public outcry in Britain, for example, if Argentina had beaten England in a World Cup third-place play-off and one of the Argentinian players had run around the pitch afterwards with a poster saying: “The Malvinas are ours!”].
Later that night the International Olympic Committee, which is scrupulous in trying to keep political slogans out of the Games, asked the Koreans for an explanation and ‘suggested’ that Park should not be present when the other 17 members of the squad collected their bronze medals at Wembley in the presentations after the following day’s final.
The incident had added fuel to a political fire stoked days earlier when the South Korean President, Lee Myung-bak, had visited the islands.
South Korea Olympic Committee and football federation jumped to obey the IOC. Park was told he could not attend any of the receptions organised to mark the country’s first Olympic football medal. Further, the KFA wrote to the Japanese federation explaining that Park’s behaviour had been merely “an impulsive act” and hoping that the two FAs “will be able to work together to prevent similar incidents in the future.”
In fact the two have co-existed comparatively peaceably since being thrown together – against both their wishes in more delicate times – to co-host the 2002 World Cup. The historic animosity between the countries meant FIFA had to exercise enormous patience and time in making the finals ‘work.’
At one early stage then general secretary Sepp Blatter, in frustration, remarked: “We cannot even get them to agree a time and a place for a meeting, never mind organising a World Cup together.”
The Korea federation’s emollient letter was criticised by some members of the National Assembly and its overall behaviour has been attacked in no uncertain terms by Hong Myung-bo. He was not only the Olympic coach but has long been one of the most respected figures in Korean footall after captaining his country to the semi-finals of that 2002 World Cup.
He believes the KFA was wrong to bar Park from the celebratory receptions and should, at the least, be given the medal which continues to be withheld.
“He was as big a contributor to the team as anyone,” said Hong. “As far as I am concerned, he is a well-deserving bronze medallist. That should have been his moment to remember, and he never got that chance. I personally called him and told him he should come. It was the least I could do as his coach.”
If nothing else, the squabble may still – for a while – quietly revived talk of the Pacific region (including Australia) wanting to split the AFC into East and West confederations. At least an East Asian confederation would be rid of the shadow of the Bin Hammam Saga.
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