- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2003

SEOUL — As the most popular sport on the planet, it would seem fitting soccer would play an important role in bringing the world together. While the sport has had its image problems in the past with hooliganism and stadium stampedes, more often than not soccer has been a unifying force.

No sooner had American and coalition troops arrived in Afghanistan and Iraq, soccer games were arranged for the benefit of the local populations. Coalition forces even played against an Iraqi team while the fighting was ongoing. Recently, D.C. United’s players helped pack boxes of donated soccer supplies that were sent to the Iraqi people, who love the game.

FIFA, soccer’s governing body, boasts more members (203) than the United Nations (189) — and some believe it is more influential. It has not been shy to use soccer diplomacy in mending fences between nations.

That’s the part of the impetus for the Peace Cup, an eight-club tournament that includes the champions of five different nations. It kicks off today when Korean champion Seongnam Ilhwa faces Turkish champion Besiktas at Seoul World Cup Stadium.

“The objective of the tournament is to present and spread the vision of peace and culture in the world through football,” Peace Cup chairman Chung Hwan Kwak said. “Profits from the games will be used to nurture the hopes and dreams of unfortunate youths in the Third World countries.”

Soccer has played this role in the past. Last year, for instance, longtime enemies Japan and South Korea successfully played host to the World Cup. Old rivals Holland and Belgium played host to the 2000 European Championship, and even ancient enemies Greece and Turkey made an unsuccessful bid to play host to Euro 2008.

It even has stopped wars.

On Christmas Day 1914, German and British troops on the front lines during World War I put down their guns, came out of their muddy trenches and played a soccer game in No Man’s Land. There was no official call for a cease-fire, but for a short while the soldiers stopped killing each other and instead kicked a ball around. In one diary report, the Germans won 3-2.

In 1990, rival factions in the Lebanon War took time out from killing each other to watch World Cup games beamed in from Italy. In 1969, Brazilian star Pele’s trip to Nigeria with his club, Santos, produced a three-day cease-fire in the Biafran War.

Now comes a new soccer tournament purely devoted to peace.

While Japan’s annual Toyota Cup pits the top teams from Europe and South America in a single game in Tokyo, the Peace Cup, which organizers hope will become a biennial event held in different countries, brings together the top clubs from five continents. The $16million event will involve 13 games at six World Cup venues.

The event will be the biggest international soccer tournament on the Korean peninsula since South Korea stunned the soccer world by reaching the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup. More than five million Koreans celebrated in the streets after South Korea beat Spain in the quarterfinals last year. The Koreans eventually lost to Germany and finished fourth.

The $2million prize for the winning team has drawn some big-name clubs to the event, which is being organized by Pele and his company, Pele Productions. Five of the teams participating are the champions of their nations, including Besiktas JK, PSV Eindhoven (Holland), Olympique Lyon (France), the Los Angeles Galaxy (United States) and Seongnam Ilhwa. Rounding out the field is 1860 Munich (Germany), Club Nacional (Uruguay) and Kaizer Chiefs (South Africa).

The tournament brings some familiar faces back to Asia.

Dutchman Guus Hiddink, who became the most admired man in South Korea last year after guiding the Korean World Cup team to the semifinals, returns to Korea as coach of Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven.

In the opening game, the Turkish club’s star striker is Mansiz Ilhan, who scored two goals against South Korea in Turkey’s 3-2 victory in the third-place game at the World Cup. Also returning is Galaxy defender Bo Myung Hong, a living legend in Korean soccer who starred in three World Cups and retired from the national team after the 2002 World Cup.

In today’s other game, the Kaizer Chiefs play Lyon in Daejeon.

The Peace Cup is sponsored by the Sunmoon Peace Football Foundation, created by Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a longtime soccer fan. The foundation runs three professional teams — Seongnam and Brazilian teams Sorocaba of Sao Paulo and Cene of Jardim.

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