Serious about soccer

[Story and photo by Mike Foley: Originally published online through the BYU-Hawaii “Newsroom,” September 18, 2002]

BYUH Prof. Mike AllenA BYU-Hawaii history professor literally used the arenas of the 2002 World Soccer Cup matches in Korea and Japan to further his research on nationalism and sports as an idea as well as a mode of behavior.

Associate Professor J. Michael Allen [pictured at right], who is Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, explained he found the idea of using the World Cup matches in Korea and Japan irresistible for several reasons: The World Cup, which is usually held in Latin America or Europe, was co-hosted for the first time ever, by two countries with a “very rocky history over the last 125 years.”

“I was interested to see what would happen when an event that is watched by the world — hundreds of millions watching every day — is hosted by two countries that are not particularly friendly with each other. The World Cup, more than the Olympics, is a place where nationalism is on display,” Allen said.

“The World Cup, like the Olympics, is also an event full of contradictions and tensions,” he continued, pointing out that international competition ideally transcends national boundaries and brings countries together. “On the other hand, the event itself is based on the most ruthless competition.”

Allen, who served a mission in Korea in the 70s and still speaks the language fluently as well as some Japanese, explained that neither Korea nor Japan wanted to co-host the World Cup. “There was the question of what the event would be called, and who gets to host the final match.”

In the end, he said, ‘Korea got top billing: It was the Korea-Japan World Cup; and Japan got the finals. The Koreans were very careful to make sure they let people know this was the Korea-Japan World Cup.”

During the competition, Allen said, “You could sense it was important for both countries to do well, but it was especially important to do better than each other.”

Both teams went through to the second round, when Japan dropped out, but Korea eventually came in 4th place, “which was way beyond anyone’s expectations. This was the first time a Korean team had gone beyond the first round. After Korea made it into the second round, there were huge celebrations. After that, every victory was like icing on the cake, but it also fueled expectations. The World Cup for that month of June, became the ‘national religion,'” Allen said.

“After the Korean team finally lost, newspapers reported that people were saying, ‘I don’t know what to do now. I have to go to work. I’m so depressed.'”

Allen said one of the most valuable — but unexpected — observations he made during the games was the power of the nonpolitical event to unify Korea, at least for a month. “I have lived in Korea for four years, and I have never seen the country as united as I did during the World Cup. The stadiums and the streets were flooded with countless thousands of people wearing the Korean fan club tee shirt,” Allen said. “There was a sense that we’re all in this together.

“After every victory, the streets turned into huge parties, all night. You might find that in Brazil, or Mexico, but contemporary Korean nationalism always has to be seen in the context of the division between North and South,” Allen continued, pointing out that the games “suggested an opening for a common dialog.”

For example, the games were broadcast in the North, where “there was a sense that this was their team, too. It suggested recognition that this was all one nation. North Koreans kind of adopted South Koreans” during the World Cup,” he said.

Allen observed what he called a “most interesting example” of this: “I saw a large advertising poster for a telecommunications company that showed a soldier at the Demilitarized Zone. You couldn’t see his head. Instead of holding a weapon, he was holding a soccer ball. The caption said, in Korean, ‘Next time, without fail, we play together’ …suggesting that sports have a way of accomplishing what politics has a hard time doing.”

Asked what other applications might be drawn from the games, Allen said the World Cup reminded him “national differences and rivalries are very real, and shouldn’t be minimized. For every country, this is a time when animosities are on sharp display. When countries like Argentina and England play each other, it’s a replay of all their past tensions, but it’s also a replay of the Falklands War. It’s better to play it out on the soccer field, than it is on the battle field.”

Allen also drew comparisons between the games and BYU-Hawaii. “We’re kind of the world in microcosm here,” he said. “The World Cup teaches us that national differences, which often lead us to isolate or hate each other, can be channeled. Nationalism can be a positive force. It can give meaning to lives and give people direction toward a positive goal.

“The challenge for all of us at BYU-Hawaii is to transcend, not to forget, our national identities. All of us come from nations with histories rich in positive values and experiences that can give strength and hope. While retaining those values, our challenge is to transcend and reach across those boundaries,” Allen said.

Allen joined the BYU-Hawaii faculty two years ago. Prior to that, he most recently taught at the University of Auckland. His wife, Kelli Ann West Allen, is a 1980 alumna.

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