What South Korea’s star turn at the Fifa World Cup can teach China

Peter Kammerer says there are many reasons why a football fan supports a particular team, but in the case of Hongkongers’ support for South Korea, its soft power – in the form of popular dramas and K-pop – surely plays a major role

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 July, 2018, 5:18pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 July, 2018, 7:40pm

It’s no fun to be stuck in a corner of a jam-packed bar, tucked under the TV, as Germany and South Korea are in the throes of a World Cup soccer game. I was a Caucasian minority, the vast majority being Asian and, of them, mostly Hongkongers.

Being half German, my allegiances were natural. Of everyone else, the roar each time the South Koreans touched the ball and the silence when a German player made a move ensured I kept my emotions to myself. 

I couldn’t fathom what was going on; Germany were the defending champions and the South Koreans had almost zero chance of progressing into the next round of the competition. How could I apparently be the only one to want to back the obvious winner? But history was being made and the Koreans prevailed, with the German team crashing out before the knockout stage for the first time since 1938.

I’m not a staunch fan of the sport, so the loss bothered me less than the intrigue of a bar full of people crowing over how wonderful “their” team had been, even though it failed to make the final 16 because of Sweden’s 3-0 defeat of Mexico.

There’s no argument that the South Korean victory was special. It was flavoured with the underdog paradigm, in which the possibility of the champion being unseated in the mould of David and Goliath is energetically set upon by fans; I wincingly witnessed that.

Watch: Highlights of South Korea’s 2-0 win over Germany

Then there were the fairy-tale stories of the goalscorers, Kim Young-gwon, who went into the match being hated by South Koreans for calling them “frustrating” and “too noisy” last year, and star forward Son Heung-min, who plays for English team Tottenham Hotspur, but whose international career began in the Bundesliga.

But there were other factors for a Chinese audience to get behind the Koreans. Global events like the World Cup promote themselves as bringing the world together, allies and enemies alike, in the name of sport and, in doing so, build bridges and understanding.

Alas, I saw none of that, even from myself. Instead, there was blatant racism, with Asians – understandably – getting behind Asians and in my case, for genetic reasons, Germany.

Footballing personalities can also be a factor. It’s why admirers of the skills of Kylian Mbappé will get behind France or fans of Harry Kane support England. When a supporter’s country has been eliminated, they will turn to another for any number of reasons, sometimes ones that seem irrational.

Confident England fan gets ‘World Cup winners’ tattoo on his belly

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course: it’s only sport and as long as the racism doesn’t go too far and politics isn’t in play, that is as it should be.

Watch: Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin lookalikes at the World Cup

So, now for my theory, seemingly held by no one but me, if my crude in-house survey is any guide. I believe that a sizeable chunk of the fandom urging South Korea to belittle Germany in the bar that night was because Hongkongers have been brainwashed into thinking that all things South Korean are good.

Korean soap operas, movies, K-pop, clothes, cosmetics and food have been embraced to the point that there’s a love affair with the nation and its people. South Korea remains the hottest of hot travel destinations and although I’ve been there a few times, I can’t fathom such extreme fascination when Chinese culture is so much richer and more diverse.

K-pop is an infectious disease, not a great cultural export

And perhaps this is why the Chinese men’s national soccer team, to put it mildly, sucks. Despite there being no more popular spectator sport in China and so much effort being put into selecting and training the national team, time and again it fails to qualify for the World Cup. I contend the key lies in soft power.

China is proud of what it has achieved economically, but it also has to feel comfortable and loved on the world stage. It can do that with a boy or girl band here, a blockbuster international movie or two there, and perhaps a panda-esque version of Psy’s horsey dance of a few years back. Maybe then China will finally have a team competing at the World Cup.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post