World Cup Diary
Day Eleven: Nuclear Lull
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, June 17, 2006
It’s clear why the North Koreans are choosing World Cup month to let it be known that they have a long-range missile capable of carrying a detonable nuclear bomb. They were extremely upset when they didn’t qualify for the tournament. Their fans in North Korea staged a minor riot on March 31, 2005, when North Korea hosted Iran in a qualifying match, which North Korea lost, 2-0. There was a disputed call over a penalty the Koreas felt they deserved, the Syrian referee disallowed it, he was mobbed by the players, the stands erupted in anger, pelting the field with all sorts of missiles, and the whole scene was televised around the world, a rare moment of exuberant expression from a North Korean populace known these days as the Albania of the world: so repressed that the crushing gravity in North Korea is closer to that of Jupiter’s than to earths. The North Koreans aren’t complete strangers to the World Cup. They qualified in 1966, ended up in a group with Chile, the Soviet Union and Italy; lost to the Soviets, 3-0, as late payment for an outstanding ideological bill; tied the Chileans, 1-1, and eliminated Italy by beating them 1-0. The Koreans would end up playing Portugal in the quarterfinals, and scoring the first two goals before NATO came to Portugal’s aid (Lyndon Johnson called the Portuguese football federation and threatened to send the football team to Vietnam if it lost). Portugal won, 5-2. So last year there was more riding on that Iran-North Korea match than the world knew. Now they’re fueling up a missile, hopefully just a test missile, but announcing to the world that they have the capability to nuke Disneyworld in Orlando—which would be a good-news bad-news sort of thing for us here in Florida. Which brings us to the last couple of days in Germany. In a tournament this long, a little dullness is inevitable. Friday and Saturday provided thrilling matches compliments of the Netherlands, Côte d’Ivoire, Argentina, Ghana and yes, even the United States and Italy. Sunday was mostly a bust, with a painfully uneventful Japan-Croatia match and an almost equally conventional Brazil-Australia one (when these Australians aren’t swearing on the field, they seem to have nothing else to give). France-South Korea looked promising, but the game ended up mired in controversy—and lived up to its billing as a battle of the armistice powers. Today’s games don’t have Shakespearean drama written all over them either: Togo-Switzerland should be somewhat interesting for what it’ll do to France’s fate, but Switzerland is one of the least exciting teams in the tournament. I’m holding out for a Togo upset (as unlikely as that seems from a team that has barely has a coach). Spain-Tunisia will give us another look at that Spaniard goal machine, against a team that seems unable to do anything about it, but there should be a minor undercurrent of rivalry between these two almost-neighbors. And Ukraine-Saudi Arabia? Well… No nuclear prospects there.