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Asian Eye: Brazilian midfielder conundrum sends South Korea nuts

In a country that has long considered itself to be mono-cultural, the word multicultural is now all the rage. The first non-ethnic Korean has been voted into the South Korean parliament; the media is full of pro-multiculturalism drives – you can barely turn on your TV without seeing some ham-fisted attempt to cram stories of mixed-race families into the most unlikely of shows.

The time actually seems right for race issues to cross into no-man’s land, the world of sport. Forces are pushing for the first non-ethnical Koreans to be incorporated into the national team set-up.

A man from the Alagoas region of Brazil, is being considered for selection for the Korean national team. Famous for lagoon shellfish, sugar cane and coconuts, Eninho comes from a land so far and remote from here, you might as well call it the other side of the world.

Just as is the case in most countries, if you live in South Korea for five uninterrupted years or so, you have the right to apply for citizenship. Rarely is it granted after such a short time, but the rule exists all the same. And some of the Korean footballing powers-that-be have decided to push for Eninho, who has been included in the K-League Team of the Year for three years running now, to be considered for the national team.

At first glance, there seems to be a similar case nearby – Japan now regularly field Mike Havenaar, a white player. But when you look at who Havenaar is, you realize he is more Japanese than ethnically Dutch. He was born in Hiroshima, his entire family is naturalised Japanese, and, until recently, he had never played anywhere other than the J-League. Eninho’s case, if he ever did get clearance to play for South Korea, would be more akin to Croatia’s Eduardo da Silva, once of Arsenal, and currently playing at Shakhtar Donetsk.

A Brazilian by birth, Edu simply played in the Croatian leagues for long enough to be eligible to apply for citizenship. The fact that he has not played in Croatia since 2007 means his links with the country he represents at international level are now tenuous at best.

Short-term solution?

You can see why Korean football authorities want Eninho – Korea’s midfield, minus Bolton’s Lee Chung-yong (still recovering from a serious injury), and still reeling from Park Ji-sung’s international retirement, is bereft of ideas.

Eninho has not only scored a total of 47 goals for Korean clubs, he is regularly the top assist-provider in the league. The national team is crying out for a player like him, especially as vital, and very tricky World Cup qualifiers loom. Choi Kang-hee, the national team coach, has worked extensively with Eninho in the considerable time they spent together at Jeonbuk Hyundai. You imagine that Choi knows exactly how to get the best out of this Brazilian midfield guru.

However, the Korean government seems to be saying a big fat “no” to all this, and it is an issue that has divided fans. For a start, he is 33 years old, and can hardly be in any long-term plans for the national team.

Some of the reasons for the distain for Eninho’s inclusion in the national set-up are more questionable, though. Some fans are calling him a “mercenary”. Certainly, there is a part of me that always thinks of athletes like Wilson Kipketer, the most dominant 800 metres runner of the 1990s. When a man from the Kalenjin tribe of Kenya, who had never set foot in Europe until his twenties, ends up representing Denmark at the Olympic Games, you really start to question what is fair in sports.

But this argument comes dangerously close to the vile, repugnant racial arguments that I have seen surface on internet forums and heard murmured over beers across the country. “He’s not Korean, though, is he?” Well, technically, if the South Korean government did approve his citizenship, he would be Korean. Able to vote in elections, claim a Korean pension. The only thing that would stop him from being Korean in those people’s eyes is the colour of his skin.

The rate of inter-cultural marriages in South Korea increases exponentially every year. Koreans, more and more, are marrying people born outside of this country. Most are men from rural areas, who have trouble finding a partner, turning to international marriage agencies, with brides from Vietnam, The Philippines and China being flown in.

Many factions in South Korea still push the tired, propagandistic “one race” line, however, claiming that Koreans are a homogenous race. And such people take great pride in looking at a team of pure-bred Koreans when it is time for a national team match. Yet such sentiments are sinister, and reminiscent of comments made by French far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen around the time of the 1998 World Cup. Of his own World Cup-winning side, Le Pen said there were “too many black players” in the side, and that France “could not recognise itself” in such a team.

Future generations

Most multi-racial children are born into poorer homes in Korea. But rich kids rarely make it as football players. The best footballers in the world come from mining towns, depressed barrios, and factory slums. The rich have their golf and tennis. The poor find escape routes through boxing and football. At some point, some of these multi-cultural children will find their way into the youth set-up of major K-League clubs. Possibly they are already there now. And if they are good enough, they will one day go on to represent the national team.

And perhaps that will be the time for racial firsts in the national side, and not now. Barriers exist to be broken, and as much as I love Eninho as a player, he would be nothing but a panic inclusion in the national side. I would actually rather see South Korea field an inexperienced youth player, and fail to reach the World Cup than have a token non-Korean in the side because they have run out of all other ideas.

If Eninho was in his twenties, it would be a different question, but he isn’t so this whole argument is irrelevant. The national team needs to stop panicking and start thinking long-term. Some fantastic young players are coming through the ranks. It is time to let them mature as footballers by picking them consistently, regardless of the results. South Korea need to focus less on Brazil 2014 and more on Russia 2018, even Qatar 2022 - where this country really could make an impact. They would do well to remember what happened the last time a World Cup was held in Asia.

At some point in the future, a player whose roots are not 100% Korean will pull on a red jersey and turn out for the national team. And then South Korea will really have some soul-searching to do. Whether he is Eninho, or a mixed-race kid from a farm in Jeolla-do, it no longer really matters. It’s less a case of “let’s kick racism out of football”, and more a case of let’s kick the whole issue of race out of the beautiful game. In South Korea, and other Asian countries, this just cannot happen fast enough.

By Tim Alper

Tim Alper writes for South Korea’s leading football monthly, Best Eleven

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