Seoul Man: 12 Months in Korea – #1: Korea and the World Cup – South Korea

Korea and the World Cup
August 2002

Walking around the many impressive Korean stadiums purpose built for the World Cup is a rather eerie experience. While all the trappings of Asia’s first World Cup are there (the bunting, the flags) there is a ghost town quality to these immense structures. Most of them will not be used more than a few times a year and the money ploughed into them will never be recouped. Just like the Olympic complex that hosted the 1988 Olympics, these World Cup stadiums are set to become eternal monuments to past sporting memories.

When most people think of the 2002 World Cup they will think of Korea. Due to their performance on and off the pitch, the Koreans eclipsed the Japanese in every way. One of the abiding memories of the World Cup will be the sea of red, evident on the field (Korea’s indefatigueable players swarming around their various opponents) and off (the millions of fans who thronged the country’s main plazas and roads).

Despite the world cup and Korea’s success in it however, there is no real football heritage in the country. US sports reign supreme with baseball in particular being the main draw. While football caught the locals’ imagination when the world’s best were on their doorstep, the enthusiasm of the Koreans will undoubtedly wane when they have to make do with the grim fare the local K-League serves up.

While to the outside observer, the millions of fans that thronged Seoul’s main thoroughfares signalled a nation passionate about the beautiful game, in reality the World Cup was never about the actual football. For Koreans, the World cup was about Korea. Full stop. The actual football was a mere excuse to promote Korea as the destination in Asia, the plasmascreened, thirdgenerationtechnologied, wireless, innovative hub of the region. The fact that Korea did well was just another example of the dynamism that pervades all aspects of Korean society. Korea is the future, we are told.

The World Cup was just another example of the organisational brilliance unrivalled anywhere in the region. In the future all events will be like this. Yes the smugness from some sections of the local media was unbearable. And that wasn’t the only aspect of the Korean media’s coverage of the tournament that was hard to swallow. Highlights of Korea’s matches would be edited so any controversial incidents were removed.

Spain’s disallowed goal? What disallowed goal?

Italy’s dodgy offsides? What offsides?

At times you could be forgiven for thinking you were in North and not South Korea. These crude tactics affected the print media too with the lamentable Korea Herald not once mentioning the controversy over Korea’s path to the last four, instead devoting pages to articles with headlines like “European fans impressed with local transportation facilities”. The Herald also unwittingly exposed the myth that Koreans are football fanatics. It repeatedly printed articles about the tournament from the New York Times Service. Plainly directed at the football virgin, these articles would helpfully explain the rules of the game.

“Goalkeeper: last defensive blocker. Cannot cross box zone while maintaining hand-ball contact” etc..

While patronising to anyone who has watched more than 15 minutes of football in their lives, to the average Korean I am sure these articles were a godsend. No, for most Koreans the World cup wasn’t about football at all. It was about being accepted. Participating. Koreans hate to stand out and the whole society thrives on the mentality of the greater good. And what could be more communal than standing with 800,000 of your countrymen wearing identical ‘be the reds’ t-shirts and chanting in unison. The football was always secondary to the taking part. And just as well really since most of those cheering wildly at city hall didn’t have a clue. Raucous screams would erupt every time a Korean player crossed into the opposition half. These roars would be punctuated by screams of “shoot!!shoot!!” as if beating Oliver Kahn from 50 yards out is a viable proposition. Their reaction times seemed to be suspect as well. Not familiar with the basic refereeing signals, not once did I see a Korean cheer when they were awarded a penalty. It was only when the ball was being placed on the spot did the crowd erupt, finally realizing what was going on. This was repeated in every decision from corner kicks to red cards.

Don’t get me wrong, the atmosphere at all of Korea’s games was unbelievable and I don’t believe they would have qualified for the second phase if it wasn’t for that support. However, while they may have been loud and looked good, they didn’t really know what was going on most of the time. Noisy they may be, football fans they ain’t.

Having said that, the atmosphere in Seoul was amazing during World Cup month. And never have I seen so many people with so little trouble. Over a million people watched the Germany-Korea semi-final in the centre of Seoul. Yet there were only 14 arrests! Even when it looked like things might get out of hand (drunken revellers climbing on buses and firing fireworks at passing cars), once the law showed up the natural Korean wish for law and order was restored.

All in all it was an unreal and slightly surreal experience, particularly as it was only my second month in what is to be my home for the next year and a half. Yes, like so many other twenty somethings, I have come to Asia looking for excitement, adventure and hard currency. And rather uninspiringly I have become an English teacher. Yep! You too can become an English teacher. Just send a passport photo and some vague evidence of a college education and you can walk straight into a job that in most countries takes years of training. Yes, like thousands of other unqualified drifters, I am teaching English in North East Asia. The aimless, sordid world we inhabit is something I will try and document over the next six months or so. While for others Taiwan or Japan was the destination of choice, Korea was my pick (due more to a free apartment and flights than any cultural considerations) and Korea is where I will stay…well for the time being at least.

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