It is not hard to imagine the reaction of Turkmenistan’s and North Korea’s presidents following the recent round of chastening defeats suffered by both nations at the Asian Cup, the geographical equivalent of football’s European Championships.
Despite an absence in either country of authentic soccer pedigree both sets of players will genuinely fear of the reception that awaits, where the mitigating factors of uncompetitive national leagues and a lack of experience at the highest regional level will not be accepted by the autocratic regimes of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow and Kim Jong-un. At the very least those responsible within the respective governments and/or football associations can expect a torrid time, with a likelihood of their duties being relieved.
In normal circumstances, or should I specifically say normal countries, success and failure of a representative football team would only be used by social commentators from a viewpoint of their own, promulgated agenda, instead of being co-opted to glorify a regime, or indeed highlight the great shame brought upon it and the country at large. Should for instance a football team do well, or better than predicted, it can be used as a stick to beat a ruling government and the general state of the nation as part of a ‘despite of, not because’ accusation. Conversely, sporting success can be heralded as a reflection of a healthy, stable country being benevolently governed for the good of its people. The power of sporting success, and failure, should never be underestimated as a mood board for the nation, with the power to unify but also to shine a greater spotlight on, for example, social issues of excessive alcohol consumption, as highlighted in England during the Russia 2018 World Cup. In North Korea and Turkmenistan, some appalling but hardly unexpected group stage results will have an effect of bringing shame on both despotic regimes, in essence undermining all the hard, selfless work undertaken by the guiding hands and principles of leaders whose belief of how their nations are viewed abroad is vastly different to the reality.
Berdymukhamedow’s Turkmenistan is all for show; a film set where the pretence continues once the camera have stopped rolling. This is no egalitarian utopia that supports its countrymen from the sale of vast reserves of hydrocarbons beneath its territory, but where queues form for cooking oil and bread. Huge sums, billions, have instead been blown on projects to glorify the president, ironically monikered Arkadag, translated as “protector”. Quite who or from what the Turkmen people are being protected isn’t apparent; in reality the ruler and his actions are the reasons for the unravelling of Turkmenistan’s society. The president’s rule is North Korea-lite; only a lack of a nuclear capability differentiating the nuances of both brutal regimes.
A vision of a grim-faced Kim Jong-un impatiently pacing Pyongyang International Airport’s terminal building, awaiting an inbound flight from the United Arab Emirates containing a fearful soccer squad is almost comedic in its hackneyed portrayal of the fate of those who fall short of glorifying the Mount Paektu bloodline, and the socialist ‘paradise’ it has painstakingly created. The scenario may not be exact, although the principle is accurate enough; those that show up the president of a rogue state are not only undermining his brilliance but are failing in their duty to glorify the regime and nation, and ‘to do their bit’.
Setbacks and accomplishments on the fields of sporting battle have a disproportionate part to play in the mood of a nation, often being used as a vehicle to justify excessive, damaging behaviour in the name of celebrating or commiserating something that is in the end of little or no consequence to the individual. There is though also a genuine reason why national football associations are meant to be apolitical, and free of governmental interference. For whatever the consequences of win and loss have upon a nation football, as with any other sport, should never be used to promote political doctrine, or as a tool of one-upmanship against those regarded as geopolitical enemies.
In both North Korea and Turkmenistan it won’t be the mental health of the viewing population that takes a downward spiral after the latest on field setback of the their respective teams – there is a chance that defeats won’t even be reported by heavily controlled national media – but that of those who will have been perceived by the ruling regimes as having failed the state, and will now fear what is potentially to come.