The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Forza Suwon! Korea Team Fighting!

Posted by steigs on March 6, 2008

The LA Galaxy has been on a tour of Asia, taking full advantage of the benefits of having David Beckham on the team.  (Well, maybe not full advantage — I imagine that the Chinese are buying knock-off Beckham jerseys, not official ones.)  They tied FC Seoul earlier this week, then lost on penalties.

South Korea’s K-League doesn’t have much of a profile over here.  To the extent we notice an Asian league — which isn’t much — it’s Japan’s J-League, which has more high-profile foreigners and has a highlight show FSC runs to help fill out its schedule.  Gamba Osaka of the J-League, for example, recently crushed the Dynamo to win the pre-season Pan-Pacific tourney in Hawaii. 

But as FC Seoul demonstrated, the K-League does have some decent teams and players.  Koreans can play, with South Korea being Asia’s most consistent World Cup performer, and the country is increasingly prosperous, which can help build a league.  I saw some of that myself on a trip to Korea in ’04, where I caught a Suwon game.  The Suwon Bluewings are one of Asia’s better club teams.  My notes on playing tourist in Seoul, Korean soccer in general, and the Suwon game are after the jump.

Seoul/Suwon B October 2004 

I gaze at the palace grounds, feeling as if I have stumbled onto the set of a kung-fu epic.  I half expect to see Jet Li come whirling by, single-handedly holding off a dozen hapless guards, on his way to thwart the villainous monarch.  It is a breezy fall afternoon, with the sun shining brightly, perfect for settling final scores before winter sets in.

In real life, I am at Gyeongbokgung, once the principal ceremonial palace of the Joseon Dynasty, the long-running line of kings who made Seoul the capital of Korea in the late 14th century and who ruled the country until 1910.  Going through Gwanghwamun, the immense outer gate, is like traveling back centuries.  One moment you are beside a broad skyscraper-lined avenue, cars hurrying by, and the next you are in a dusty pedestrian zone, facing a line of ornate medieval-looking Asian buildings.  The ceremonial guard is being changed as I arrived, men in over-sized suits and strange hats taking slow measured steps while holding giant flags.  Off-kilter but dignified music accompanies them as well as a cloud of excited children and intent photographers.

The next gate leads into the main palace grounds.  It is a vast timbered archway with skilled and rather garish decoration in green, reds, and purple.  I enter and stroll the grounds amid the heavy traffic of Koreans, admiring the Genjeongjeon, the main ceremonial hall, and the Gyeonghoeru, a pleasure pavilion on a man-made pond, designed for royal entertaining.  Today, judging by my fellow visitors, this place is best suited for a day out with the kids, not parties of the elite.

As impressive as Gyeongbokgang is, the complex is largely a recent reconstruction.  Gyeongbokgang, I learn, has been destroyed by the Japanese not once but twice.  The first time was in 1592, a fire during an invasion.  The palace was in ruins for nearly three hundred years afterwards and was only rebuilt in the middle of the 19th century.  In 1910, the Japanese returned to conquer Korea, ending the reign of the Joseons, ruling Korea as a colony until the end of World War II.  They had the second ceremonial gate torn down and built their colonial headquarters on the spot.  A subtle message, that. 


Near the north end of the grounds I reach the spot marking the former site of the palace building where Japanese assassins murdered Queen Myeongseoung in 1895, another rather clear sign of Japanese intentions of the day.  Such a history gives relations between Japan and South Korea an edge, even now that both are prosperous democracies.  It takes little to revive the tensions B perhaps a Japanese prime minister paying respects at a World War II cemetery that includes several war criminals or a new edition of Japanese textbooks that the Koreans believe distort their shared history.

This often uncomfortable relationship makes the FIFA decision to award the 2002 World Cup to South Korea and Japan as a joint project all the more startling.  It was certainly not the original plan.  FIFA was aiming to grow the sport=s market share in increasingly wealthy East Asia.  The 1994 World Cup was awarded to the US for similar reasons, an attempt to invite Americans into the five billion person party by, well, having the party at our house.  They wanted the 2002 World Cup to do the same in East Asia.

In the case of North America, the US had clear advantages as a host country B vastly more stadium and tourist infrastructure than our neighbors, not to mention our greater economic value as a market.  In Asia, the giant of China was clearly not ready B although if current trends hold I expect to see a World Cup in China in the 2020s.  Japan and South Korea were both eager, had reasonable stature within the game and made bids to host.

Soccer has a long history in Korea.  Supposedly the game was first played way back in 1882, locals learning how from the proverbial visiting British sailors.  As far back as 1921 there were soccer competitions in Korea.  In 1954, South Korea actually qualified for the World Cup (by beating Japan), only to be routed once there, including a 9-0 thrashing at the hands of the powerful Hungarians.  To give you a sense of Korean-Japanese relations at the time, the South Korean government refused to let the Japanese team into South Korea to play, leaving the Koreans to play both legs of the qualifying play-off in Japan.  South Korea also won the initial two Asian Cups in 1956 and 1960.

That said, it was not until 1983 that a fully professional league, the K-League, was established in South Korea.  The league had only five teams in the initial season and the league=s make-up was unsteady at first, sometimes expanding, sometimes contracting, teams moving cities and so on.  (The NFL had a similar beginning in the 1920s.)  The initial league winners were the wonderfully named AHallelujah@ B now that=s a sports team nickname we could use in the US.  The Houston Hallelujah, perhaps, or the Detroit Hallelujah.

In the mid-1990s, the K-League gained momentum as South Korea grew more wealthy and a middle-class developed.  South Korea=s gigantic family-run conglomerates B the chaebol B stepped in as owners.  The league grew in size and the teams became more identified with cities, not just sponsoring organizations.  By 2004 the K-League had 13 teams and was reasonably well established.  It usually plays a similar season to MLS, from March or April until November.  The format has been subject to regular changes, sometimes involving play-offs to determine a champion, sometimes splitting the season into two, a la South America.  Sometimes, like this 2004 season, they do both.

Soccer in Japan really took flight around the same time as it did in South Korea.  While there had been low-key company and school-based teams throughout much of the 20th century, the glitzy J-League was launched only in 1993, a conscious effort to give Japan an international quality league.  Foreign stars were imported and huge marketing efforts gave teams like the Kashima Antlers and the Urawa Red Diamonds an initial impetus.  After that burst of buzz, the J-League has settled into a solid position, still trailing baseball perhaps, but with a solid fanbase, happy to turn out for group cheering sections.  Thanks to its more aggressive approach to bringing in foreigners, the J-League has a higher international profile than the K-League.  However, South Korea has more often been the better in international competitions.  And both countries had an infrastructure ready to handle a whole lot of tourists B both Japan and South Korea had already hosted a Summer Olympics B and the wallet to build new stadiums and fill any other gaps.

In the end, a Solomonic decision was made in 1996 about Asia=s World Cup B the two countries would share the tourney.  A wave of modern stadiums were built for the World Cup, with plans to be new homes for K-League and J-League teams afterwards.  Historically, both South Korea and Japan have been baseball lands, a testament, perhaps, to American imperial influence.  In fact, I watched the final innings of the historic Red Sox comeback victory over the Yankees at the Seoul train station with about 50 Korean men, half of whom applauded after the final out.   (Thanks to the crazy time zone difference it was morning rush hour.  East Asian baseball fans have off hours viewing issues like American soccer fans do.)  But the summer of 2002 gave baseball a worry, at least, in East Asia.

This was certainly true in South Korea.  In recent decades, the South Koreans have been regular World Cup participants B they have been in the most World Cups of any Asian team, with four other trips after 1954 before they hosted in 2002.  Morna, for example, has vivid memories of watching the South Korea-Germany game in the 1994 World Cup.  It was played in the brutal summer heat of Dallas and the Koreans just kept running and running and running, wearing down the Germans before finally losing 3-2.  For all their participation, though, South Korea had never actually won a World Cup game prior to 2002.

The trademark of the Koreans B and the Japanese B has always been a high work rate.  They have always sought to make up for their lack of size and creative play with sheer effort and fitness.  Yes, you can see some cultural stereotyping at work here B but if you watch the Koreans play you will see what I mean.

Home field advantage is hugely important in international soccer.  Still, few countries had seen the likes of the Korean home field advantage in 2002 B whole stadiums clad in the team=s color of red, making a wall of noise to cheer on the AKorea Team Fighting@ (as their slogan translated into English).  During South Korean games video screens were erected in city squares and the public spaces were filled with fans by the thousands, again dressed in red.  As Nick Hornby put it:

AWith the exception of one or two very courageous and very noticeable deviants, every single Korean citizen wore a red T-shirt, and the entire country screamed at each home pass, save, and shot.  We knew this because we could see them all: those who weren=t in the stadium were gathered around giant screens in the city centers, as if watching alone at home had temporarily been made a criminal offense.@

The coach was a veteran Dutchman, Guus Hiddink, and he proved to have a magic touch, drawing just enough skill and confidence out of the team that they could make a run through the Cup.  (Hiddink, who had coached Holland in the 1998 World Cup and once upon a time played in the NASL, was a Korean national hero by the end of the tourney.)  In the group stage they beat Poland in their opener and then tied the US, 1-1, before knocking out favored Portugal to win the group.  This was only a minor surprise B no World Cup host team, not even the US in 1994, had failed to reach the knockout rounds.  For their part, the Japanese had also advanced. 

The AKorea Team Fighting@ then proceeded to upset Italy and Spain, although the former game was marked by some questionable decisions by the referee and the latter game was a scoreless draw decided on penalty kicks.  South Korea was into the semi-finals and had beaten no less than four European teams in the tourney.  (American fans could suddenly take pride that we had actually managed a draw with the rampaging Koreans.)  Importantly, South Korea had also outlasted Japan, who had been eliminated by Turkey back in the initial knockout round. 

The Germans put an end to the wild Korean ride in the semi-finals, when an estimated two million people filled the streets of Seoul to watch the game on video screens, and the Turks then beat them in the anti-climactic third place game.  So they finished fourth but not before giving a whole country a thrilling June 2002 and a host of new heroes, including the Dutch coach. 

I have always had a soft spot for the South Korean team.  One of my college best friends is Korean and I=ve spent plenty of hours watching games at Summers with my Korean-American friend, Edwin.  Edwin=s immigrant parents, never sports fans but filled with pride by the team=s achievement, gave him a Korean replica jersey after the World Cup.

It was what happened in the South Korea-Portugal game, the last of the group stage, that cemented my vow to root for the Koreans from now on.  (Well, at least when they are not playing the US.)  The game was being played at the same time as the US-Poland match, to reduce the chances of the outcomes being manipulated.  I watched the US game before work at a bar on Capitol Hill.  Downstairs they were showing the Korean game.

The US played terribly, giving up two quick goals.  As the game continued it became clear that the US was going to lose, which meant that our qualification for the next round depended on the outcome of the other game in our group. 

For most of their game, the Koreans and Portuguese were scoreless.  The Portuguese had a player ejected midway through the first half, taking some of the edge off of their attack.  If it had finished that way, 0-0, both teams would advance, and the US would be eliminated, despite our victory over the Portuguese and our draw with South Korea.  The Portuguese then managed to get a second player ejected a little way into the second half, leaving them two men down.  According to later reports, the Portuguese players were advising the Koreans to relax and run the clock in a cynical fashion towards a draw so that both teams would advance.   

Success, however, was something new to the Koreans.  They weren=t going to simply play for a tie, especially not with their whole nation cheering them on.  They scored a goal to take a 1-0 lead soon after the second Portuguese player was ejected.  The cheers rang out from the basement.  We knew something had happened B was the US dead or alive?  Alive, word quickly came.  Some people moved downstairs to follow that game.  Even short-handed, the Portuguese came close to getting a goal.  But it was to no avail.  1-0, South Korea.

The US had a great World Cup in 2002 but we almost threw it away with that lousy game against Poland.  It was the South Koreans who came to our rescue B and even better they did by refusing to be as cynical as the Portuguese.  They could have connived to knock us out.  But they didn=t.  We owe them for that.

After the Gyeongbokgang, I continue exploring Seoul.  Back behind the palace sits the Blue House, South Korea=s equivalent of the White House, but it is hardly a tourist attraction in the same way.  There was no way to get anywhere close, let alone tour it.  The security presence is heavy.  After all, North Korea, that hermit kingdom still clinging to its own odd version of totalitarianism, is but 30 miles away. 

During the Korean War, of course, the North invaded the South, later getting help from Avolunteers@ from the newly installed Communists in China.  We may think of that as ancient history, a conflict best remembered in aging AMASH@ reruns, but the North Koreans continue to pose a threat.  For example, in 1968 a team of North Korean assassins were caught only 500 meters away from the Blue House.  Walking around downtown Seoul you regularly see men, usually Koreans not Americans, in military uniforms.

Still, I arrived in South Korea at Incheon, at a big new international airport.  To a previous generation of Americans, Incheon was the site of a bold amphibious attack during the Korean War.  Maybe to a future generation, it will just be the city with Seoul=s airport. 

I head to the nearby backstreets of Insadong, a district of artist shops and tea cafes, admiring the traditional celadon pottery and the sketched landscapes.  Dive restaurants lurk down alleys and tourists like me pause to look into shop windows.  Little of this neighborhood is original B Seoul suffered heavy damage in the war B but it feels a few decades older than the rest of the glass-faced modern city, as if I could catch Hawkeye and Trapper John enjoying some leave in one of these places.

Seoul itself is immense, a city of ten million and, it seems, a million tall buildings, spread for miles on either side of the Han River.  Clusters of tan-colored apartment towers rise 20 or 30 floors into the air all around the city.  They line the highway in from the airport, the Korean equivalent of our sprawling exurbs.  The south side of the river is newer, with the financial center and high-rise office buildings.  Sprawling on the north side is the traditional downtown with government buildings and palaces.

I make my way to Mt. Namsam, really more of a large forested hill, than an imposing peak.  It rises in the midst of the north side of Seoul, capped by the soaring Space Needle-like Seoul Tower, which spikes a thousand feet into the sky.  From the tower=s observation deck you can almost imagine that you are looking down on Los Angeles.  Well, the Los Angeles of the 1970s perhaps, given the thick smoggy air, which can make it difficult to discern even the modern monoliths just the other side of the river.  The air quality, or lack thereof, is partly due to the cars B all those Hyundais and Daewoos B flooding Seoul.  It is also a visible reminder of the growing industrial might of nearby China, pollution drifting over from northern Chinese factories.

I have a few more days to explore Seoul.  The next day, for example, I will meet up with my college friend B now living in Seoul B for some Korean barbeque and a cruise on the Han River.  Later in the week, I will take the train to the country=s southwest to visit a medieval capital and the forested hills above it, thick with changing trees and Buddhist temples.  (The temples, which date back as long as 1300 years, prove to be reconstructions as well B more victims of Japanese invasions.)  First, though, it is time for a taste of the K-League. 

So in the evening I catch the train to Suwon, a city of one million 30 miles south of Seoul and at the outer reaches of the local transport network.  Seoul has hosted two world parties in recent years B the 1988 Summer Olympics and the 2002 World Cup B and the vast subway and regional train network has extensive English signage, making it relatively easy to navigate.

I had planned to explore Suwon but had gotten the time of the game wrong, a risk when one cannot easily make sense of the local paper and relies instead on Internet discussions.  I had realized my error just in the nick of time.  It is dark by the time I reach Suwon Station, a modern combination of transport hub and shopping mall.  Outside, the Suwon downtown is a blast of neon in the darkness.  AHarmonious City, Happy Suwon@ reads a billboard, in English.  Is this accurate, I wonder, or wishful thinking on the part of local authorities?  Is the fact they have to assert it a sign of problems?  Perhaps not.  Maybe I am, like the Portuguese in the World Cup, taking matters too cynically.

My cab gets me to Suwon World Cup Stadium a few minutes after kick-off of the game between the Suwon Bluewings and Ulsan Horang-I (or Tigers).  The Suwon World Cup Stadium will always be a special place for American fans.  It was here that the US team shocked Portugal 3-2 in their first game of the 2002 World Cup.  Suwon hosted four World Cup games in all, another being the delightfully wide-open 5-2 Brazil victory over Costa Rica.

Today, I see as I arrive, it also hosts weddings in a Awedding/exhibition hall.@  If I had gotten here earlier I could have checked out the guidebook=s recommended Agalbi@ or beef ribs restaurant nearby.  Or tried to imagine myself here on the magical June day when the US beat Portugal.  Or circled the place in search of a watering hole to sample Korean beer.  Instead I grab a ticket for about $10 and head right in.

As you would expect, it is a state of the art stadium.  The evening is crisp, temperature in the 50s but headed for the 40s.  The stadium has two tiers with four separate stands.  The seats are basic plastic with a remarkable color scheme, largely blue but with an abstract explosion design of oranges, browns and reds up towards the higher reaches.

I can discern this interesting pattern because the upper deck is almost entirely empty.  Suwon World Cup Stadium may hold around 45,000 but on this weeknight the Bluewings are lucky to draw 5,000.  It feels a bit like watching an MLS game in one of the vast NFL palaces, say Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, like maybe you are watching the JV before a varsity game.  (My reading suggests that K-League attendance is, on the whole, higher than this, and I happened across an off-night.) 

I=m on one side, not far from one goal.  Just to my left are the Suwon ultras, who fill almost the whole lower deck behind one goal.  They have a cadre of drummers and are a wall of blue Suwon jerseys.  A multilingual array of banners support the team B AForza Suwon!@ ABlue Storm!@ ABoom 2004″ and a whole bunch in Korean.  They wave flags.

The game is already going, about ten minutes in according to the modern video scoreboard high off to my right.  The Bluewings are in, predictably, dark blue jerseys and shorts.  They have a short but distinguished history.  Founded only in 1996, they won the K-League in 1998 and 1999.  They then went on to win the Asian Club Championship, a sort of Asian Champions League B competing against teams from Japan to the Persian Gulf B in 2001 and 2002.  The rich backing of Samsung may have had something to do with this quick and impressive success. 

The Bluewings have slumped of late, more of a better than average team than a powerhouse, perhaps because they are rebuilding from their championship side.  This K-League season is split into two stages, with the top teams from each and two additional teams, meeting in play-offs at the end.  Suwon did well in the first stage and a few games into the second stage are in third place.  So they can still dream of play-off glory.

Their opponents are from Ulsan, an industrial city on the southwestern coast of Korea, home to Hyundai.  This means that, in effect, the game is also Samsung versus Hyundai.   As I watch the match I struggle to recall if Ulsan was, as I seem to think, a villain in the Marvel Comics I devoured as a kid.  Maybe he was the evil robot who fought the Avengers?  Or was that Ultron?  Hyundai seems to have put some money into the side B Ulsan is currently tied for third with the Bluewings.  The Horang-I have a longer history than Suwon, dating back to 1984, the second year of the K-League, but a less distinguished one, with a solitary league title to their credit, back in 1996.

On one side of me is a Korean family B in classic fashion the father intently watches the game and the mother watches the two bundled-up small boys.  The boys are more interested in wrestling each other than following the action.  In front of us, a pair of guys in their 20s are analyzing the game with a steady patter of Korean commentary back and forth.

Suwon scores quickly, about minute 15, on a header from Nadson, a Brazilian import.  (Even on the other side of the world they import Brazilians to provide the flair and the goals.)  The ultras erupt.  The pair in front of me relax, sitting back after the goal.  Their commentary keeps flowing.  The little boys pause to see what the fuss is about then return to their obscure disputes.

After the goal, it becomes a chippy game, the teams having trouble establishing effective ball movement.  A lot of fouls are whistled by the referee, who doesn=t appear to be Korean.  I am still trying to identify players.  Suwon looks to be starting two or three non-Koreans, including the two forwards.  Ulsan doesn=t look to have any obviously non-Korean players.  The play is relatively even, perhaps because both teams are disrupting the other=s attack.  Pretty soon, long balls and set pieces look like the only chance at another goal.

Behind the far goal, a handful of Ulsan ultras have made the trip north.  They have a banner behind them reading, in English, AGet Winning Goal Ulsan!@  The beat from their handful of drums drifts through the night air whenever the Suwon drummers pause.  I catch the smell of noodles on the breeze.                

At the half, people drift up to the concessions.  Not hungry, I investigate the souvenirs.  It is the usual the world over B Bluewings jerseys and scarves.  ABest Asia Team@ they brag, which I suppose two championships allows one to boast, even if it has been a few years since those triumphs.

The second half gets a little ill-tempered.  The aroma of the noodles the pair in front of me are eating tempts me and I hop up the steps to the concessions…only to find they shut down immediately after the half.  D=oh!  How orderly!  Clearly, they could learn from the American ever-present style of concessions where the game itself can sometimes seem a secondary matter.

Down a goal on the road, Ulsan doesn=t quit.  They force the Bluewings goalie to make a spectacular save around minute 59.  He does a somersault after his leap for the ball and ends up on the ground.  The game pauses while the trainer double-checks his well-being.  A replay on the video screen draws Aooohhs@ but the goalie is soon up and about and the game resumes.

The referee is trying to keep the physical game under control.  He whistles fouls for elbowing and slide tackles almost continuously.  We get used to watching free kicks.  Down to my left, the Suwon ultras are messing about with AWe Will Rock You@ so that it goes AWe Will/We Will/Rock You/Su-Won!@  It sounds quite powerful with the big drums they have.

Ulsan keeps the pressure on and Suwon=s counter attacks are not particularly dangerous.  About minute 83 the ball bounces free in the Suwon penalty area because of some poor defending.  The goalie, apparently clear-headed, dives to make a good save, keeping the 1-0 lead.  A few minutes later an Ulsan forward gets a dangerous header on goal.  Again, the Suwon goalie comes through with the save.

Despite the close calls, the Suwon ultras are tasting the victory.  As the minutes tick by they begin singing, in English, ANa na na na/hey hey/good bye!@  The refrain gets louder and louder as the drums set a galloping beat.

The final whistle.  It was not pretty but rack up another win for the Bluewings.  A blaze of guitar solos comes over the PA system and I head out into the night, right behind the two guys who are still maintaining their commentaries, looking for a taxi back to Suwon station for the train back to Seoul.


2 Responses to “Forza Suwon! Korea Team Fighting!”

  1. […] Suwon! Korea Team Fighting! Posted in March 6th, 2008 by in sport car steigs wrote an post worth reading today.Here’s a quick excerpt:FIFA was aiming to grow the sport=s […]

  2. Projekt dom w cyklamenach…

    […]Forza Suwon! Korea Team Fighting! « The Five Billion Person Party[…]…

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