Friday, May 28, 2010

North Korea: A slice of Americana

It's not easy to process North Korea's participation in the World Cup if you're an American football fan.

One the one hand, let's face it, North Korea is hilarious. A state-run media under orders to portray the country – and its team – in the most glorious shade of realized perfection. The easily mocked leader who's also starred as a major motion picture puppet. That same man's clothing and hair. Where knee-jerk stereotypes about foreigners provide an easy and popular laugh, Americans really dig that far-out North Korea weirdness, man. "Look at Kim Jong-Il! He so sirry!"

Of course none of those laugh points involve the people who live there. I'm in no position to lecture any audience about the brutal lives led by North Korea's citizens, so I'd encourage anyone interested to look around and read a bit. Considering North Korea sank a South Korean ship recently, you're just a few Google News queries away from learning a great deal.

That leaves us with the DPRK football team. What do we make of it? This week saw some backlash against North Korean hilarity with this T-shirt being mocked at Deadspin. It's a reasonable argument for a lot of people because if there's one thing Americans hate more than foreigners trying to kill us, it's dirty, dirty hipsters. It would be discouraging to see support rally for North Korea's World Cup hopes only among people who grow mustaches because they believe mustaches are, like, from 25 years ago, man! There is plenty of non-ironic appeal for Americans because North Korea's matches against Brazil, Portugal and Côte d'Ivorie fit into a classic American narrative – The Underdog Story – and, unless The Glorious Leader himself stands in goal, there's not much to dislike about the actual men playing the match inside those DPRK shirts.

Further, North Korea is better positioned than any other team at the World Cup to disrupt and add freshness to yet another classic American narrative – Nike – which has become an obnoxious bluster despite new applications of gloss. Côte d'Ivorie (Drogba), Brazil (its Brazil-ness) and Portugal (CR9™®) are the stars (with Rooney) of that short film that looks like it cost $125 million to make and seems to exist solely to be seen, linked to and then drift away into the ether. The film flashed across the world in an afternoon and seemed to overpower a bored American population with its energy. A respite among another afternoon lull during the work week. Watch it! You must watch this! It's Nike! It's stupendous! You will talk about Nike!

Ugh, it's just the worst, and North Korea can plop an awkward kink into the whole thing by messing with one of these teams. Maybe even two. The long-shot team full of players no one has ever heard of, from a place we know nothing about, and they're matched up against some of the most celebrated supermen in the sport. Can anyone, anywhere, who is not named Mourinho or has lived on the west side of the Iberian Peninsula present a convincing argument for cheering against North Korea on June 21 when the team plays Portugal? What's more exciting for an American football fan next month? The group plays out as expected and the Portugal-Côte d'Ivorie match settles who finishes second? Or something else?

If the ideal is to put aside the petty nationalism for a while (admittedly not easy as I am Polish and get kind of peeved just reading the name Klose), then hope for some little bits of success for North Korea at South Africa 2010. Any disruption for the other teams in that group versus North Korea would have a far-reaching impact for how the tournament could play out. It's not likely, of course, but just imagine it. If Portugal lost to North Korea or even drew, don't you think Ronaldo and Co. would bring a certain tenacity in their final match against Brazil? And what if Côte d'Ivorie underestimated North Korea in its final group match, thinking Portugal would not get anything from Brazil? Americans love a good storyline through their sporting events, and North Korea could offer up a fantastic one.

The team doesn't have to be enjoyed ironically or despised because of how Kim Jong-Il would like nothing more than to maintain the threat of imminent war in Asia so he can get more payoffs and concessions. North Korea actually is presenting Americans with a chance to experience the country for itself. The secrecy, travel bans, goofiness and more prevent people here from knowing about North Korea in any way other than through their own filter. At the World Cup, Americans get to see one part of North Korea for what it is. The country stands with the world rather than separated from it. It's, well, a great thing, and a much better representation of the ideal those ESPN World Cup commercials with Bono are trying to express.

Get ready for it with this brief article that includes a blurb about the DPRK-Portugal back story, and imagine something a little different about North Korea for once. This is supposed to be fun, after all, and North Korea can only add to it.

No comments: