Tie, Schmie: This Crowd Is #1

So it appears that planning in advance is not the way that we get to soccer games, Saeyun and I. We got our tickets to the opening game of the World Cup in a mad rush two days before; this time, it was the evening before.

The game we had scored tickets for - or rather, that Saeyun's uncle had managed, astonishingly, to find tickets for - was the Korea-USA game. This was promising to be one of the most exciting matches of the Cup, at least as far as the Korean fans were concerned. And if the crowd was half as excited as the crowd I watched Korea's first match with, on the streets of Seoul, it would be a pretty thrilling place to be.

To make matters somewhat more difficult, this match was not in Seoul, where we were, but in Daegu, about 4 hours' drive away. The game began at 3:30 pm; assuming there would be traffic jams as fans by the thousands converged upon the city, it seemed we should leave no later than about 8 am.

The view from the bus rest stop was quite impressive, and for once, had nothing whatsoever to do with soccer.

As I'm visibly not Korean, I figured I should probably be pretty visible about whose side I was on - namely, the Korean side. While I have a certain sympathy for the US in one of the few sports where the team is actually an underdog, I'm not what you'd call a US fan. Partly, I like the fact that soccer is a sport not dominated by the US in any way; partly, I'm just a fan of a well-played game, and while the US is surprisingly good, a team like Senegal or England just has more commitment. But what it boiled down to in this match was that not only did Korea have passion and commitment, but the game meant so much to millions of people. Few USers reallys care about this game, but in Korea, an entire country was going to be waiting with bated breath for the outcome of the match. The Monday of the game, most schools let out early, as did workplaces. And after the last game, seeing how involved, how loyal and how utterly passionate the fans on the streets of Seoul were, I really felt that Korea, the host country and a country in the throes of soccer fever, deserved to win.

A Korean fan, dressed - for reasons still unclear to me - as an angel/devil. Regardless, the costume looked pretty damn cool.

So, to make sure my sympathies were clear, I'd purchased a South Korean fan t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan "Be the Reds!" These shirts are available on every corner and are wildly popular, which is a nice touch of irony, since this is one of the most staunchly anti-Communist countries in the world. Although others had told us to be cautious about the crowd, and had worried about my safety, I wasn't particularly concerned; for one, Korea doesn't exactly have a tradition of soccer hooliganism, and for another, most soccer violence develops when folks are looking for a fight - which means they're looking to pick on someone willing to fight back, and sexism being what it is, few soccer hools will try to beat up on a woman. Not that I wasn't expecting some verbal harassment, but that's a different issue than physical safety. (Apparently, a few folks around us did comment rather negatively on "people speaking English," but since they said it in Korean, and were talking to each other rather than to me, I was only aware of it when Saeyun overheard and translated).

Once in Daegu, the bus station was - conveniently - just across the way from the shuttle bus to the World Cup Stadium. (I was relieved - I hate taking cabs in cities I don't know, because you never know when you'll be figuratively as well as literally taken for a ride.) There was a line already forming for the shuttle bus, so we headed around the corner to the end of the line...

...but the line kept going. It was a small road, so we couldn't see where the line ended, but it just seemed to keep going and going and going, like 10,000 Energizer bunnies all wearing red t-shirts. Around another corner, walking even further, and finally the end of the line. It was noon. We figured with luck, we'd be at the stadium in about 2 hours. Thank goodness we'd left ourselves extra time.

 
The state-of-the-art Daegu stadium

Here's something I've learned about Korea in my time here. There are few countries in the world that are better capable of dealing efficiently with crowds. Events that promised to be chaotic were not, and this line was one of them. About 30 or 40 minutes later, we were sitting comfortably in the bus on our way to the stadium.

And here's another thing I've learned about Korea: This place is cleaner than anywhere comparable in size that I've ever been. The bathrooms in the stadiums were almost as pleasant at the end of the game as they were two hours beforehand, and they never, ever ran out of toilet paper. Most small clubs in the States can't even manage that, let alone 50,000-seat stadiums. And it's not just the stadiums: some subway stations look cleaner and more attractively decorated than my own living room.

 
The Itaewon subway station. Those are live orchids on the stairs.

At the stadium, as with the first game, security precautions weren't what I'd been led to expect - no ID checks, cursory bag inspections primarily geared toward finding and uncapping water bottles, since bottles of any kind were prohibited. (You had to go in and pour your water into a Coca-Cola paper cup - which is certainly a clever product placement move on Coke's part.)

Before the game even began, there were chants and cheers making the rounds, people trying to do the wave (somewhat difficult when the stadium is not quite full yet), and a general atmosphere of crackling excitement. This was big. This was very big.

Before the game, the man behind me leaned over and said, "USA win! Best team!" I misunderstood, thought he meant Korea, nodded and then backtracked: no no, Korea best team! After some further discussion we agreed that it would be nice to see both teams advance.

If the crowd on the streets of Seoul was exciting, the crowd at the stadium was unbelievable. I don't think a minute went by during the entire game - that's 90 minutes, mind you, plus a few extra and halftime - that we weren't doing a chant of some kind. The first ten or twenty minutes and the last fifteen were calisthenic exercises - Korean team nears the goal, everybody UP! On your feet! They might score! Look at that - how close he is - shoot! Shoot! Ohhhhh... and the collective moan as the goal was not scored and we all sat down, until shortly afterwards, when another Korean player neared the goal and we were up again, clenched fists, willing the ball into the goal by the power of our chants. The number of chances they had, it's pretty astonishing they only scored once.

The crowd. Or a part of it, anyway.

It's perhaps even more astonishing that the US managed to score at all. During most of the game, but especially during the first fifteen minutes, the entire stadium booed when a US player had control of the ball. (I decided that while I was happy to chant along with the pro-Korean cheers, I wasn't going to boo - not because I'm from the States but because I just don't think it's sporting.) The US team was visibly rattled; I'm not sure they've ever been in a situation like that, and they certainly weren't used to it. Their passes were shoddy, they were kicked every which way but to the guy on their team, and they looked like they wanted to go home. I don't often feel sorry for a US sports team, but I felt sorry for these guys. Still, there were moments later in the game when particularly good plays by the US team - especially on the goalkeeper's part - garnered applause from the audience, which clearly valued good soccer even if it came at their own expense. That, too, I appreciate.

Nevertheless, the US managed to score in one of their few shots on goal, and the Koreans, in spite of what felt like at least a shot a minute at the beginning of the game, were scoreless until almost the end of the game. We were up, down, up on our feet cheering, down again, up again, up up! he's so close!!! ahhhh, no, sit back down - wait no! could be this one?! no... until finally, in the 78th minute, Ahn Jung Hwan - the heartthrob - scored a well-deserved goal.

It was a relief that they tied; it would have been a shame for South Korea to lose, especially after playing so well - and after such a showing on the part of the fans.
The placards - with some interruptions - read, "Go KOR - 16!" Everyone was hoping Korea would qualify for the second round, the Round of 16, for the first time ever.

After the game, waiting in line for the shuttle bus back to the station, I had my one moment of getting heckled - not by Koreans, but by USers. They were passing us in a bus, wearing US apparel and flags, and shouted, "Hey! Where you from?" I said, "Here and there," partly because the assumption that all white folks must be from the US bothers me, and partly because it's true. Nevertheless, I didn't want to say "Germany," because while I have dual citizenship and all, I do think those guys needed to know that not all folks from the US always support the US team.

The US guys yelled that they didn't buy my answer (to which I yelled, "Korea's the better team!"), and then yelled, "Traitor! Traitor!" until their bus pulled away. In spite of how recent the US team's international competitiveness is, US fans seem to be wasting no time in catching up to the uglier displays of nationalism that tend to mark international soccer events. Which, unfortunately, is really no surprise. (In fact, some of the most obnoxious displays of nationalism I spotted in Seoul were not, as might have been expected, from English fans, but from USers.)

In line behind us were two guys with US flags painted on their cheeks. After the "Traitor!" incident, they complimented my "here and there" answer, and we started up a conversation. Turns out they were Canadians, living and working in the US, and had mixed feelings about their own appearance as US fans.

It also turned out that they were soccer tourists of the sort I can only dream of being, and had been to the past two World Cups, in France and the USA. Hands down, they told us, the crowd here in Korea was the most incredible group of fans they'd seen. Even in France, when the home team was in the quarterfinals, it wasn't as electric an atmosphere as it was here for the first-round game.

Fans display the South Korean flag before the game.

So now Korea has a sporting chance of moving on to the next round, and preparations are already underway for Friday, when Korea plays its final first-round game, the now all-important match against Portugal. I'll be in the air, flying back home when it happens; I hope they announce the results as they happen. And I hope that Korea advances.

It's not just the team that deserves it. Above all, it's the fans.


June 12, 2002

 

Text and photos © 2002 NoAura Productions. All Rights Reserved. Ask before you borrow!!

 

Waxing Rhapsodic

My notes from England vs. Argentina: The way soccer was meant to be!

June 7, 2002: England against Argentina, one of the Group F qualifying games. Group F is also known as the "Group of Death," because with England, Argentina, Sweden and Nigeria it has four powerhouses competing for only two spots in the next round.

And my god, this is a beautiful game - the way soccer should be played. England and Argentina are so evenly matched, and both teams are amazing artists with the soccer ball. The way they trap, stop, change directions abruptly, dribble around the other players and still have the ball firmly between their feet - fabulous. And it's not just their feet; the whole body is part of the game. Wonderful.

Both teams are also incredible strategic thinkers. The game plan that develops on the field in response to the play is clearly well considered, in spite of the fact that they have only instants to develop it. It's as if they have eyes in the backs of their heads, keeping track of exactly what the field looks like at all times.

Their passes are right on, going exactly where they're supposed to go. Still, the passes aren't always completed, because the other team is on it, and fast. They're both astonishingly fast - changing formation constantly, anticipating the ball as it's kicked, moving in to guard, to pressure, to challenge. You rarely see a game where they don't let a routine situation just be - if the goalie has the ball, generally everyone runs down to the other end of the field because, well, the goalie has the ball, and he's going to kick it, so why argue? Here, when the goalie has the ball, he gets rushed. Someone's right in front of him while he tries to kick, pressuring, challenging, seeing if that kick can be intercepted. And the goalie has to move fast to pre-empt that challenge. That's what makes this game so thrilling; unlike the blah play of the Germany-Ireland match earlier in the week, here, there's never a routine moment.

And while the game - like every game - has its share of fouls (these teams aren't known for their mild manners) the fouls don't slow down the game at all. And perhaps more importantly, they're sporting about it; no grudges, no anger. You get fouled, you get up, you play some more. No one gets caught up in the fouls, because the game is too important.

And it's just gorgeous watching someone dribble, have a defender charge him, go one-on-one, turn on his own axis, keep his body between the defender and the ball and his feet moving so fast no one can get between them, stopping, trapping, going around, lifting the ball lightly in the air, and come out on the other side still in control of the ball, in a sprint on goal - good lord, it's sheer beauty. Whether or not he scores is secondary. The game itself is a joy.

And the passion is evident. Both of these teams want to win - they just want it. With the caliber of this game, it could be the final match of the Cup, not one of the first qualifying matches. I doubt either would play much better in the final, because what makes this game great is that they're giving it their breathtaking all.

This is how soccer should be played. This is what it's all about, why we watch all of those opening round games: because we just might see one like this. Both of these teams deserve not only to advance, but to be recognized as the champions they are, champions for playing a game that I feel deep in my gut, and that reminds me why I love this game so much.

Addendum, June 12th, 2002. Today, the final games in the Group of Death. Argentina, in spite of playing with a passion that seems foreign to teams like Germany or even Italy, does not have enough points to advance. I watched the final Argentine game today in a subway station, and when it was over, I had tears in my eyes. If I'd had an Argentinian fan to commiserate with, I would have wept over the injustice of the game.

But that, too, is why I watch the Cup. Because skill matters, and artistry, and passion, but luck is, finally, the dealmaker, or breaker.

 

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More Korea columns:
Travels in the Demilitarized Zone. The border between North and South Korea is definitely one of the strangest places I've ever been. (19. June 2002)
Dae Han Min Guk! Watching soccer in central Seoul with 50,000 of my closest friends. Part II of the Korea journals. (5. June 2002)
We're in Korea! First web journal from the trip to Korea. And yes, we're going to see the World Cup! (30. May 2002)

last updated 17. June 2002