The List

Off Pitch

The global political issues playing out at the World Cup.


The issue: Since attending the World Cup is out of the question for most North Koreans, Pyongyang has solved its on-site fan shortage by recruiting a thousand Chinese citizens to fly the old red, white, and blue on its behalf. Among the members of the so-called "volunteer army" are Chinese actors, comedians, and pop stars lucky enough to have snagged a ticket from the North Korean sports ministry.

With North Korea expected to fall early to soccer powerhouses Brazil and Portugal in the aptly named Group of Death, the Chinese cheer team is probably in for a short trip. It also has some pretty big shoes to fill. During a 2005 home match against Iran, an unfavorable call from the referee sparked a revolt among enraged North Koreans and the army had to be called in to restore order.

The North Korean team arrived in Johannesburg to little fanfare on June 1, after the pariah state was rebuffed in several attempts secure a training ground in one of South Africa's neighboring states. Tiny Swaziland earlier balked at Pyongyang's demand that it provide accommodation, meals, transportation and also fork over $250,000 for the privilege of hosting North Korea's heroes. Zimbabwe, a close ally, was the natural second choice, but the team's plans to train there were foiled when protesters highlighted North Korea's involvement in a bloody massacre that took place in the country in the 1980s.

What to watch for: On June 15, North Korea takes the field against Brazil's legendary team. Expect it to get ugly.


The issue: Zimbabwe, the autocratic failing state to South Africa's north, is a perpetual headache for South African leaders, and the World Cup will be no exception. Groups have lobbied World Cup teams not to hold their practices in Zimbabwe or play warm-up games against the country. Brazil's side has been criticized for going through with a warm-up match against the Zimbabwean team on June 2.

South Africa has taken a heavy interest in moderating power-sharing talks between President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, with President Jacob Zuma personally making trips to Harare under a mandate from the Southern African Development Community. But Zuma's critics say he's too close to Mugabe, pointing to the South African leader's calls for targeted sanctions to be lifted from Mugabe's party. South Africa is also host to at least 2 million Zimbabweans seeking refuge from the political instability across the border.

Taking advantage of the media coverage of the World Cup, the activist group Zimbabwe Democracy Now is organizing skits to be performed across South Africa during the tournament that will "lampoon the partisan military commanders and [the] politburo who are Zimbabwe's de facto rulers." The group expects political violence in Zimbabwe to rise in the coming weeks as the opposition continues to demand new elections and accuses Mugabe's political party of harassing opposition voters.

What to watch for: Zimbabwe Democracy Now's performances begin on June 21.


The issue: Human traffickers throughout Africa are cashing in on the World Cup, particularly in Ethiopia where false promises of "employment opportunities" in South Africa have already fooled many into forking over $1,200 in exchange for a dangerous journey that typically ends in arrest and a refugee camp in Malawi. As many as 25,000 Ethiopians fall victim annually to what has become a $40 million-a-year industry.

Sex trafficking and prostitution is a concern during every World Cup, and President Jacob Zuma has warned that the event "opens up opportunities for criminals such as those who traffic in women and children." The South African Parliament enacted much tougher laws punishing sex trafficking and forced labor last month. An earlier proposal to legalize prostitution ahead of the games was voted down.

What to watch for: Ten incidents of xenophobic violence have already occurred this year in South Africa, according to one independent watchdog. Any similar incidents during the tournament would be a serious blow to South Africa's image.


The issue: The People's Republic isn't fielding a team for the World Cup this year, but it has still managed to make its influence felt. A peace conference in Johannesburg bringing together past Nobel Prize laureates was postponed after South Africa denied a visa to the Dalai Lama. The conference was to take place the week before the first kickoff.

South African officials say it wasn't in the country's interest to invite the Dalai Lama, as his visit would detract attention from the soccer tournament; critics charge the government with bowing to pressure from Beijing. China hasn't directly admitted to applying pressure, but an embassy spokesman in Pretoria has gone on the record acknowledging that a visit by the Dalai Lama would be harmful to Chinese-South African relations.

What to watch for: South Africa's government says the conference will still take place at a yet-to-be-determined date well after the teams and fans have gone home.


The issue:  South Africa has been beset by labor strikes that many worried would threaten the construction of facilities for the World Cup. Thousands of construction workers charged with building the country's biggest stadiums walked off the job last July, when negotiations over wages broke down. Then, last month, transportation workers went on strike for 2 1/2 weeks before agreeing to a 12 percent pay raise. The tactic cost the economy an estimated $3 billion, but with global attention about to focus on South Africa, the government was in no position to negotiate.

Labor isn't the only area to have been affected by unrest. Demonstrators objecting to Pretoria's relocation of the poor to make room for World Cup facilities staged protests in March. Critics have accused President Jacob Zuma of sweeping poverty under the rug before welcoming wealthy foreign tourists into the country. The displaced have been sequestered in shantytowns that some residents reportedly describe as concentration camps.

What to watch for: South Africa will open the tournament with a game against Mexico on June 11.

The List

The Most Absurd Arguments About the Oil Spill

The gulf disaster has opened up a gushing plume of nonsensical rhetoric.


Who said it: Sarah Palin

Money quote: "Extreme Greenies:see now why we push'drill,baby,drill'of known reserves&promising finds in safe onshore places like ANWR? Now do you get it?"

The argument: Whenever there's an opportunity to attack Barack Obama's administration, Sarah Palin is eager to push the message. The former Alaska governor's always-amusing Twitter feed has been filled up recently with suggestions and accusations about the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. Unsurprisingly, she has consistently reiterated her old "drill, baby, drill" talking points.

But in the wake of the Gulf fiasco, Palin has conveniently forgotten her constant advocacy for offshore drilling and instead focused on the need to drill on land. Palin also put it directly to President Obama, tweeting (punctuation original): "'I never say drill,baby,drill' Ahh, that's much of the problem,Mr.President;Drill ANWR&unlock land for safe onshore devlpmnt/energy security."

Palin published a Facebook note on Wednesday expounding on her argument, writing "Radical environmentalists: you are damaging the planet with your efforts to lock up safer drilling areas. There's nothing clean and green about your misguided, nonsensical radicalism, and Americans are on to you as we question your true motives."

Opponents of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge say it would not only ruin what has been called "America's Serengeti" -- home to numerous animal species, including polar and grizzly bears, a large number of caribou, and many different birds and fish -- but would provide little relief for the American public. A 2004 study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration said that drilling in ANWR would lower gas prices a meager 3.5 cents a gallon by 2027.


Who said it: Rush Limbaugh, Brit Hume

Money quote: "More oil [is] spilled every year in Africa, in Nigeria, than so far in the Gulf.  So it's not unique; it is not exceptional; it's not the largest. Mexico had a spill that's larger than this. Nobody talks about it except, apparently, me."- Rush Limbaugh

The argument: BP CEO Tony Hayward certainly didn't do his company any favors on May 14 by saying the oil spill was "tiny" compared with the volume of water in the Gulf of Mexico, a claim the oil giant has since walked back from. But conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh and Fox News host Brit Hume, among others, have topped even Hayward's argument, by forcefully arguing that the oil spill really isn't a big deal.

They've reasoned that because the gulf annually absorbs an amount of oil equivalent to twice the Exxon Valdez spill, the current crisis is overblown. Of course, the two failed to mention that because the seepage is a small, consistent trickle, it is possible for the water to dramatically spread out the oil on the surface, negating any harmful effects. There's an enormous difference between the gradual, natural process that has proved to not affect wildlife or the ecosystem, and the massive, concentrated gushing from the destroyed BP well that has already killed hundreds of birds in the Gulf coast states, endangered vulnerable turtles, and caused untold dollars in economic damage -- though the exact figure will not be known for some time. The spill is currently pumping up to 19,000 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Department of the Interior. Natural isn't really the word that comes to mind.


Who said it: Michael Brown, Rush Limbaugh

Money Quote: "They played politics with this crisis. ... This is exactly what they want, because now [Obama] can pander to the environmentalists and say, 'I'm going to shut it down because it's too dangerous.'"- Michael Brown

The argument: Obama's decision this year to initiate an offshore drilling program surprised many of his supporters, given that he had offered only lukewarm support for the idea during the 2008 presidential campaign. In response to the current crisis, Obama has shelved those plans. But former director for the Feceral Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, of "Heckuva job, Brownie"fame, has detected a more sinister reason behind Obama's about-face. Brown has argued that not only is Obama more than happy to call off his offshore drilling program, but that his response has been deliberately slow; the president wants to make the leak worse so that he'll be forced to cancel his offshore drilling plans (which Brown claimed he didn't actually want to go through with in the first place).

Limbaugh took the argument even further, insinuating that perhaps the Obama administration itself blew up the rig, saying on his show, "We had this call from a guy out there who said nobody's talking about whether this was an act of sabotage because I guess they can't prove it, but they're going to send SWAT teams down there? He was going to send a SWAT team to the rig that blew up or are you going to send a SWAT team to other rigs? What's going on here? Remember, this rig blew April 21st, which is one day prior to 'Erf' Day." Making the sabotage claim even more ridiculous, Obama has hardly benefited from the crisis, with his response widely criticized in the media as being too slow and inefficient.


Who said it: Fidel Castro

Money quote: "[The oil spill] shows how little governments can do against those who control the capital"

The argument: The former Cuban president -- in his new guise as his country's blogger in chief -- has pointed to BP's failure as a prime example of the horrors of the free market. In a state media editorial last Saturday, Castro wrote that the oil spill "shows how little governments can do against those who control the capital, who in both the United States and Europe are, due to the economy of our globalized planet, those who decide the destiny of the public."

Of course, Castro neglected to mention that Cuba has its own nascent offshore drilling program, with investment from Chinese, Canadian, Indian, Spanish, Malaysian, and Norwegian oil companies. Cuba erected its first independent shallow-water rig north of the island nation last year. Castro is probably hoping that his experiment goes better than that of his buddy Hugo Chávez. A Venezuelan offshore rig sank in the Caribbean on May 13.

Castro's bluster aside, the oil spill has actually been an opportunity for the United States and Cuba to work together for once. The two countries have held "working-level" talks on handling the spill.


Who said it: Barack Obama

Money quote: "The time has come, once and for all, for this nation to fully embrace a clean energy future."

The argument: While the claims that Obama sabotaged or deliberately dragged his feet in responding to the disaster may be laughable, there is no doubt that the administration and its Democratic allies see the spill as an opportunity to push stalled climate-change legislation through Congress. The House of Representatives narrowly passed a cap-and-trade bill last year, but the legislation has since stalled in the Senate. With attention focused on the Gulf, Democrats have decided to make another push. Obama yesterday acknowledged the lack of progress in Congress, but vowed success in the near future: "The votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them in the coming months." Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has said that the "Gulf of Mexico oil spill has underscored the stakes" in the congressional fight.

While few oppose a "clean-energy future," the truth is that offshore drilling plays a relatively small role in causing climate change. Oil, while a contributor to U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, comes nowhere near the impact of coal, which causes about 80 percent of all U.S. fossil-fuel emissions. A 2009 Environment America report shows that power plants spewed 2.56 billion tons of climate pollution in 2007, roughly the impact of 450 million cars. But in 2007, there were only 150 million passenger cars registered in the United States What's more, Obama originally proposed allowing limited offshore drilling as a sweetener to smooth passage of the climate bill. He can't have it both ways.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images; Win McNamee/Getty Images; Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photography/Getty Images)