Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Korea V Netherlands

As I travelled from Jeonju to Seoul on my way to watch Korea V the Netherlands at the Seoul world cup stadium little over a week ago, I reflected on a few things. Why are the buses and trains in Korea so much better than in the UK? They are cheaper, quicker and more comfortable. Why does it feel like the people who own businesses don’t consider the financial bottom line to be the most important thing in the world? The fact that side dishes are free and you can eat until you drop in most places with refills a plenty doesn’t seem to bother anyone and why is Korean football so different from European football or should I say the Korean attitude to football?

I go and watch the home games of Jeonbuk Hyundai motors, my local team. I love football and so watching a game of football, any game is better than not watching one; even if the standard is not great. The standard of the game on the pitch isn’t great in Korea when you compare it to Europe or England in particular but there is something else, a little je nais se quoi as they might say in France, which makes it better in a different way. I go with a few friends, we have a few beers, watch the game, chat intermittently and we love it, usually on a Sunday afternoon or evening as the summer approaches. It is the highlight of the week sometimes.
Football matches in Korea can act as a window on Korean society, you see all sorts of people there from all walks of life, the old, young, married, single, men and women and usually with hundreds of kids running around the stands. The patriotic attitude of Koreans is embodied in football matches too, especially at the Korea national games but football in Korea is a real family affair. You see families waddling into the stadium carrying bags of various bits of equipment they might need for the game including an array of food and drinks as well as umbrellas/parasols and all sorts of other things you never thought you’d see in a football stadium. The families sit together and get the Soju flowing and the packets of dried squid open, they then cheer, drink and eat until half time when they go for a walk to stock up on more food and drinks in anticipation of the second half.

When we arrived in Seoul we headed to Itaewon to procure some lodgings for the evening; 30,000 won in a clean but basic motel did the job, located around the corner from the wolfhound it is the perfect place to fall from the pub into bed. I would rather spend my money on nicer things in Seoul than a bed so the cheap price suited my taste but in hindsight maybe a room with at least a window would have been better in the stifling heat!

The tube to the stadium was predictably full but his time there was an odd mix of everyday Koreans going about their business and the football fans heading to the game. But there was something different about these fans, they weren’t all drunk and singing songs and being abusive as football fans in Europe have been known to be on occasion. No, they were families, men, women and children of all ages dressed in their team colours, all going to support their country.
We emerged 30 odd minutes later from the station to be greeted by a wall of steps leading up to the stadium. Each step had people sitting, talking, eating and drinking with everyone sporting some kind of red or orange piece of material on their bodies or orange hats made from balloons in the shape of the crown, signifying the Dutch royal connection.

There was actually a distinct lack or orange or white shirts but certainly no lack of non-Korean faces, there were huge groups of foreigners all sporting red shirts, here to support the land that currently hosted them. The atmosphere was fantastic, a sea of street vendors selling their wares, mekju, kimbap and tokk being amongst the biggest sellers as well as the obligatory Korea paraphernalia from t-shirts to head scarves. We stood around and savored the atmosphere, drank some beer, posed for photographs and waited to go into the stadium.

Inside the stadium the atmosphere was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, the Koreans seem to have a fun at all cost policy and receive their hosts with emphatic friendship and admiration, from the individual foreigner to entire national football teams from other countries (although I’m not sure how warmly received Japan are). Football is different in Korea, I’m not going to say better but it certainly makes a change from football in the UK. People like us who are obviously not Korean were welcomed with such enthusiasm it almost made me want to cry, especially when I think about what might happen to someone if they admitted to a group of European fans something similar. This hospitality culminated with a group of several lads in front of us turning to us when a Dutch substitution was made. My friend and I wore our Liverpool FC shirts to the game, I don’t have a Korea shirt and my Liverpool shirt is red so I thought it was appropriate. There were many other Liverpool shirts around the stadium too.
Dirk Kuyt came onto the pitch and immediately the few Koreans boys in front turned to us to almost congratulate us when they realised he came on because he plays for Liverpool, they actually applauded him along with us and they seemed happy for us. That made my night.

Koreans have the right idea when to comes to football, play for the love of the game, support your team with passion but never cross that line, the line of taking the game to seriously. Koreans have no problem with that. At most stadiums in the UK there is a dedicated family section where people who want to take their kids can go and not fear for their children’s safety if the result of the game doesn’t go the right way. I looked for a family section at this match but failed to see one. I quickly realised that they don’t need one, indeed the stadium was the family stand, kids were every where and everyone was having fun with the smattering of Dutch fans mixed in.
The level of patriotism inside the stadium made me a little bit homesick and for a brief moment I wished I was home, in front of a crowd of my own people being this patriotic and supporting my country with such desire.

There was an incident that shattered the atmosphere momentarily. From what I could gather a young man had asked another, older man if he would mind sitting down instead of standing as he and his friends couldn't see, the older man took exception and a small scuffle broke out. This system of unquestionable respect towards ones elders has its strengths and its weaknesses and is open to abuse from people who demand respect yet give nothing in return and I’m sure this is not what Confucius had in mind! The incident was resolved and in case anybody spent too much time looking at the arguing group a man started singing and encouraged all around to join in, which we did.

Korea lost the game 2-0 but you would have never have guessed from all the smiling faces exiting the stadium past the small queue that had formed to have their photograph taken with myself and my friend in our Liverpool shirts.

European football teams and countries could learn a lot from Korea and they would only have to spend a short amount of time in the country in order to experience the hospitality. I will be sad to leave Korea when the time comes but then I will probably do what a lot of foreigners do and return here as soon as I can. The kim chi and hospitality are both addictive and I'm not sure i could lead a life without either.

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