South Korea and Brazil: Intangible legacies of hosting the Football World Cup

The host countries of major sporting tournaments like the FIFA World Cup are usually obsessed with the international status and prestige that comes with hosting these events. More interesting however is the impact that these tournaments have on the host society itself.

I witnessed first-hand the impact on the 2002 World Cup on South Korea, which it co-hosted with Japan. The heroics of its national football team in reaching the semi-finals of the tournament—the first Asian team to do so—energised the country and restored a national pride battered by a century of occupation, Cold War and authoritarian governance.

The heroics of South Korea’s national football team in the 2002 World Cup, which it co-hosted with Japan, energised the country and restored its national pride. Damien Gabrielson.

The heroics of South Korea’s national football team in the 2002 World Cup, which it co-hosted with Japan, energised the country and restored its national pride. Damien Gabrielson.

In 2014, Brazil approaches the World Cup in a different position, juxtaposed as the spiritual torch-bearers of world football and an emerging economic power, a nation divided by protests, cost-of-living pressures, socio-economic inequality and corruption. South Korea 2002 makes for an interesting comparison to explore what this year’s World Cup might mean for Brazilian society moving forward.

The South Korea I encountered as an exchange student in 2002 was less vibrant and cosmopolitan than it is today. Its fledgling democracy was barely a decade old. Corruption stemming from its rapid development phase, anti-communist ideological rigidity and social conservatism were the norm.

Korea’s democratic transition was punctuated by traumatic events such as the first nuclear crisis with North Korea in 1994 and the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Rapid economic development had brought material prosperity as well as social uncertainties as established orders began to change.

To a foreign observer like me, Korea was an insular place, exhibiting elements of both xenophobia and deep-seated and dignified pride. The World Cup changed this negativity in a profound way. A positive national feeling erupted as the country, through its football team, realised that it could be more than the play thing of more powerful countries.

To be immersed in this transformation was electric. I will never forget sitting in Busan stadium for South Korea’s opening match with Poland, awe-struck by the stirring sound of 80,000 Koreans chanting “dae han minguk” (Republic of Korea). Nor will I forget the delirium following Ahn Jong Wan’s golden goal in extra time against Italy, and Korea’s penalty shootout quarter-final victory over Spain.

Hundreds of thousands of Koreans took to the streets to support their team, uniting the nation. The tournament provided an outlet for a new South Korea—proud, confident and cosmopolitan—which reflected the country’s ascendance as an important economic, political and social actor on the world stage.

On the surface, 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics should be Brazil’s coming out party too. Brazil is a country rich in natural resources, with a rising middle class and sound economic fundamentals. Many Brazilians want to show the world that they are a first-world country, keenly aware that despite their growing economic might, they still do not enjoy developed world status

Despite the national team being a five-time World Cup winner and perennial tournament favourite, all is not well in Brazil as the cup approaches. Country-wide protests in June last year (analysed in The Conversation here, here and here) brought global attention to Brazil’s deep socio-economic divisions.

Preparations for the World Cup and 2016 Olympic have emphasised in a highly visible way the corruption and nepotism of the Brazilian business class, along with popular frustration at the inadequacy of basic services, despite the fact that Brazilians pay a high rate of tax. The situation has been further exacerbated by rising land values and cost of living pressures driven by tournament-related urban development.

The protests have also been noteworthy in the way that they have mobilised across class boundaries, uniting people against corruption that seems to proliferate with impunity. Proposed legal changes to strip public prosecutors of their investigative powers (PEC37) and give Congress the power to overturn Supreme Court decisions were so breath-taking in their scope that even the most comfortable of Brazilians took notice.

Protest organisers plan to continue their demonstrations through the tournament. Violence between civilians and police in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas has reportedly been increasing in recent weeks as police attempt to improve security ahead of the Cup.

How well the Brazilian team performs may be a critical factor. Where the South Korean team’s success in 2002 enabled that country to unite and transcend its baggage, so too do Brazil’s leaders hope that footballing success in the coming tournament might relieve some pressure from the protest movement. The pressure on the team to perform is immense.

The ultimate legacy of the World Cup may become more than a series of expensive stadiums. With a national election in October and the Olympics in 2016 to come, the World Cup may be a coming-of-age experience for Brazil, but more so in coming to terms with its internal contradictions rather than the attainment of international status.

* Thank you to Johannah Hopgood for her assistance with this article, and to Mark Koen, with whom I shared my World Cup adventure in 2002.

The ConversationThis article was originally published in The Conversation.

My time living in South Korea in 2002 was an incredible time.  Personally, the experience as an exchange student at Keimyung University in Daegu was a period of significant intellectual and personal growth.  To be a part of Korea’s transformation as the South Korean team made its incredible run to the semi-finals was an incredible privilege.  My interest in Korean peninsual politics dates from this trip.  The photo gallery below records my World Cup adventure.  Please excuse the poorer quality of some of the photos, which I took using a rudimentary early-generation digital camera.  Digital photographic technology has come a long way since…

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