Off Pitch

The global political issues playing out at the World Cup.



The issue: Since attending the World Cup is out of the question for most North Koreans, Pyongyang has solved its on-site fan shortage by recruiting a thousand Chinese citizens to fly the old red, white, and blue on its behalf. Among the members of the so-called “volunteer army” are Chinese actors, comedians, and pop stars lucky enough to have snagged a ticket from the North Korean sports ministry.

With North Korea expected to fall early to soccer powerhouses Brazil and Portugal in the aptly named Group of Death, the Chinese cheer team is probably in for a short trip. It also has some pretty big shoes to fill. During a 2005 home match against Iran, an unfavorable call from the referee sparked a revolt among enraged North Koreans and the army had to be called in to restore order.

The North Korean team arrived in Johannesburg to little fanfare on June 1, after the pariah state was rebuffed in several attempts secure a training ground in one of South Africa’s neighboring states. Tiny Swaziland earlier balked at Pyongyang’s demand that it provide accommodation, meals, transportation and also fork over $250,000 for the privilege of hosting North Korea’s heroes. Zimbabwe, a close ally, was the natural second choice, but the team’s plans to train there were foiled when protesters highlighted North Korea’s involvement in a bloody massacre that took place in the country in the 1980s.

What to watch for: On June 15, North Korea takes the field against Brazil’s legendary team. Expect it to get ugly.


The issue: Zimbabwe, the autocratic failing state to South Africa’s north, is a perpetual headache for South African leaders, and the World Cup will be no exception. Groups have lobbied World Cup teams not to hold their practices in Zimbabwe or play warm-up games against the country. Brazil‘s side has been criticized for going through with a warm-up match against the Zimbabwean team on June 2.

South Africa has taken a heavy interest in moderating power-sharing talks between President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, with President Jacob Zuma personally making trips to Harare under a mandate from the Southern African Development Community. But Zuma’s critics say he’s too close to Mugabe, pointing to the South African leader’s calls for targeted sanctions to be lifted from Mugabe’s party. South Africa is also host to at least 2 million Zimbabweans seeking refuge from the political instability across the border.

Taking advantage of the media coverage of the World Cup, the activist group Zimbabwe Democracy Now is organizing skits to be performed across South Africa during the tournament that will “lampoon the partisan military commanders and [the] politburo who are Zimbabwe’s de facto rulers.” The group expects political violence in Zimbabwe to rise in the coming weeks as the opposition continues to demand new elections and accuses Mugabe’s political party of harassing opposition voters.

What to watch for: Zimbabwe Democracy Now’s performances begin on June 21.


The issue: Human traffickers throughout Africa are cashing in on the World Cup, particularly in Ethiopia where false promises of “employment opportunities” in South Africa have already fooled many into forking over $1,200 in exchange for a dangerous journey that typically ends in arrest and a refugee camp in Malawi. As many as 25,000 Ethiopians fall victim annually to what has become a $40 million-a-year industry.

Sex trafficking and prostitution is a concern during every World Cup, and President Jacob Zuma has warned that the event “opens up opportunities for criminals such as those who traffic in women and children.” The South African Parliament enacted much tougher laws punishing sex trafficking and forced labor last month. An earlier proposal to legalize prostitution ahead of the games was voted down.

What to watch for: Ten incidents of xenophobic violence have already occurred this year in South Africa, according to one independent watchdog. Any similar incidents during the tournament would be a serious blow to South Africa’s image.


The issue: The People’s Republic isn’t fielding a team for the World Cup this year, but it has still managed to make its influence felt. A peace conference in Johannesburg bringing together past Nobel Prize laureates was postponed after South Africa denied a visa to the Dalai Lama. The conference was to take place the week before the first kickoff.

South African officials say it wasn’t in the country’s interest to invite the Dalai Lama, as his visit would detract attention from the soccer tournament; critics charge the government with bowing to pressure from Beijing. China hasn’t directly admitted to applying pressure, but an embassy spokesman in Pretoria has gone on the record acknowledging that a visit by the Dalai Lama would be harmful to Chinese-South African relations.

What to watch for: South Africa’s government says the conference will still take place at a yet-to-be-determined date well after the teams and fans have gone home.


The issue:  South Africa has been beset by labor strikes that many worried would threaten the construction of facilities for the World Cup. Thousands of construction workers charged with building the country’s biggest stadiums walked off the job last July, when negotiations over wages broke down. Then, last month, transportation workers went on strike for 2 1/2 weeks before agreeing to a 12 percent pay raise. The tactic cost the economy an estimated $3 billion, but with global attention about to focus on South Africa, the government was in no position to negotiate.

Labor isn’t the only area to have been affected by unrest. Demonstrators objecting to Pretoria’s relocation of the poor to make room for World Cup facilities staged protests in March. Critics have accused President Jacob Zuma of sweeping poverty under the rug before welcoming wealthy foreign tourists into the country. The displaced have been sequestered in shantytowns that some residents reportedly describe as concentration camps.

What to watch for: South Africa will open the tournament with a game against Mexico on June 11.

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