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Proposed Joint North-South Korea Bid for FIFA 2023 Women’s World Cup Unlikely to Succeed

North Korean women playing soccer on artificial turf, Pyongan Province, Pyongyang, North Korea (Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Art In All Of Us/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Korea Football Association of South Korea recently sent a proposal, with the blessing of the South Korean government, to the North’s DPR Korea Football Association to suggest they submit a join bid for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, according to the Associated Press.

During a meeting of soccer’s international rule-making body, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), in Scotland earlier this month, FIFA President Gianni Infantino expressed enthusiastic support for current talk of a joint North and South Korean 2023 bid. Infantino remarked, “It would be great.” Mohammed Khalfan Al Roaithi of the UAE, who is running for head of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in its election this April, expressed support for the join 2023 bid; he has visited South Korea and says he plans to visit North Korea too.

Both Korean women’s teams are strong. In the FIFA world rankings for women’s soccer, the North Korean team is currently 11th and South Korea 14th. The North Korean team has done fairly well at past Women’s World Cup tournaments, even reaching the quarter finals in 2007. North Korea won the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in 2001, 2003, and 2008. However, FIFA banned the North Korean team from the 2015 Women’s World Cup because five of their players were caught in doping violations at the 2011 Women’s World Cup. Oddly, the North Korean team, frequently in the top ten of the women’s international rankings, failed to qualify for this summer’s Women’s World Cup in France. Overall in recent years the South Korean team has not done as well, but they are getting stronger and they qualified for the 2019 Women’s World Cup by narrowly edging out North Korea in group play during the 2018 qualification rounds.

South Korea celebrates scoring against New Zealand during a March 2019 Cup of Nations match. (Image from @theKFA)

One of the other four bids expected for 2023 is expected from South Africa, whose women’s team currently ranks 48th in the world. Also likely to bid are Columbia, ranked 26, Japan, ranked 8, and Australia, ranked 6. Being a top ranked team is not directly related to hosting the event, although having a strong team, such as Australia and Japan do, can help build local enthusiasm. Australia seems particularly enthusiastic; it already has a website with a zippy video and it is promoting hashtag #getonside to build support for its 2023 bid.

Of all these likely bids, the joint Korean bid will face the highest hurdles. For one thing, hosting an international tournament requires significant sports venue and tourism infrastructure, both of which are lacking in North Korea. And the time window for the women’s quadrennial tournament between the awarding of the bid and hosting the tournament is only three years, less than half the length of the eight-year span between the bid award and the hosting of the men’s World Cup.

To add to this, among the likely bidders only North Korea faces travel bans, sanctions, and grave human rights considerations.

According to U.S. law it is currently illegal to use a U.S. passport to travel to DPRK (without special exception). All bets are that the super star U.S. Women’s National Team, currently ranked number one by FIFA, will qualify for the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Hosting the tournament in a location to which a top team cannot travel would be more than a little problematic. There is also a ban on travel by South Korean to the North without special permission, but with South Korea being part of the bid this would presumably be waived.

Sanctions will pose a further problem. Several countries in the world have a range of sanctions against North Korea. And yes, sanctions can have an impact on sports. In 2018 the International Olympic Committee requested that the United Nations allow an exception to the U.N. sanctions in order to allow shipment of sports equipment to North Korea. The United States blocked this move.

Human rights violations in North Korea are another hurdle. In the 2018 bidding process for the 2026 men’s World Cup, FIFA integrated an independent human rights assessment into its Bid Evaluation Report. The United Bid of U.S., Canada, and Mexico beat out Morocco. The guidelines for the 2023 bidding process do not list this integration of a human rights review, but something similar is likely to be included.

The two Koreas have tried to leverage sports as an onramp to better relations in the past. In 1991 the two played jointly as one team at the FIFA World Youth Championship in Portugal. Their teams marched together at the 2018 Olympics and in September 2018 North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in together issued a statement of intent to bid on the 2032 Olympic games. The 2032 bids need to be submitted by 2025.

The possibility of greater stability on the Korean peninsula and at least a nod to human rights in North Korea seven years from now, to meet the 2025 bid submission deadline, may be in the realm of the possible. By contrast, even if the two Koreas meet the March 15 deadline to indicate they want to submit a bid for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, it is, to put it mildly, unlikely North Korea will move past its sanctions and human rights problems by the final bid deadline of October 4, 2019. The award to host the 2023 tournament will be announced March 20, 2020.

I am inclined to view this talk of a joint Korean bid for the 2023 Women’s World Cup as just a gesture toward collaboration. The mascot for this summer’s Women’s World Cup in France will be a chicken named “ettie,” said to be the daughter of the rooster Footix, the mascot of the men’s 1998 World Cup in France. My prediction for the 2023 Women’s World Cup is that the mascot is much more likely to be a kangaroo or an Akita than a pair of Korean Jindo and Pungsan dogs.

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