THE Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) decision on Monday that the national team must play North Korea in Pyongyang next month, in the 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers, is the best decision for the “beautiful game”.
FA of Malaysia (FAM) want to play the match on a neutral ground and appealed to AFC, but insisted the final decision was to be made by the government.
Deputy Home Minister Datuk Seri Reezal Merican Naina Merican said there was no travel ban to North Korea while Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said he respected AFC’s decision.
As such, it could be seen as government interference if they instruct the team not to play in North Korea.
Utmost on the minds of FAM and fellow Malaysians, in playing the match in Pyongyang, is security.
This is in the wake of the country’s president, Kim Jong-un, planning to conduct the sixth nuclear test under their ballistic missile and nuclear programmes, despite international condemnation.
Malaysia are also concerned we don’t have any representatives at the Malaysian embassy in Pyongyang.
Relations between Malaysia and North Korea soured following the assassination of Kim Jong-nam at klia2 on Feb 13.
The government imposed a travel ban after a diplomatic row escalated but it was lifted in late March.
Datuk Peter Velappan, secretary-general of AFC from 1978 to 2007, said playing in Pyongyang was right.
“Football belongs to everyone. It is the most popular game in the world. It transcends colour, religion, ideology and borders,” said the 81-year-old Peter.
“It touches the heart and emotion of humans more than any sport or institution.”
As former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had said: “Sport is a universal language. At its best it can bring people together, no matter their origin, background, religious beliefs or economic status.”
The power of sport to unify, empower and motivate has been recognised not only by sports bodies but also governments.
How can we forget “Ping-Pong (table-tennis) diplomacy” in 1971 when US-China relations improved, when the American table tennis team, in Japan for the 31st World Table Tennis Championship, received a surprise invitation from their Chinese colleagues for an all-expense paid visit to the People’s Republic.
On April 10, nine players, four officials, and two spouses stepped across a bridge from Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland, ushering in an era of “Ping-pong diplomacy” which paved the way to a visit to Beijing by President Richard Nixon.
The US table tennis team were the first group of Americans allowed into China since the Communist takeover in 1949.
Peter cited football matches after the wars between Iran and Iraq, Kuwait and Iraq, and North Korea and South Korea, which were played on a home and away basis.
It paved the way for better relations.
“Football will be the best platform to mend any soured relations as sports transcends all barriers,” said Peter.
“I was involved in arranging the match between South Korea and North Korea and can attest to the ‘red carpet’ treatment the North Korean will give the Malaysian team. They are hospitality people.”
As for fears for security, AFC would have explored and studied all possible situations, before making their decision.
In any case, with the concerns surrounding the match, AFC would in all probability classify the match as “high risk”.
This will mean extra precautionary, scrutiny and requirements will be imposed by AFC, who will also send their security team for the match.
There are strict rules in place on host teams providing adequate security for visiting teams.
AFC will also asses the situation two weeks before the match.
The AFC 2018 Group B Women’s Asian Cup qualifying tournament was held in Pyongyang last month without any security issues.
South Korea who emerged champions, Uzbekistan, India, Hong Kong and host North Korea competed.
Malaysia will only be courting trouble asking for a neutral venue or even boycotting the match.
Harimau Malaya could be barred from further participating in the competition and could be fined.
FAM would be spared further sanctions like a ban which could jeopardise the organisation and participation in the KL Sea Games in August or the running of the local league.
Though skipping the match will only see a “rap on the knuckles” from AFC, what is going to hurt Malaysia most is that no ranking points will be attained from this competition.
This could see Malaysia fall further down from their current Fifa ranking of 158.
Besides Malaysia and North Korea (116) the other teams in Group B are Lebanon (137) and Hong Kong (150).
Security factors are of utmost importance but let us trust in the power of sports to make the right decision.
TONY is a sports journalist with close to four decades’ experience and is passionate about local sports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org