Koreans, like many of their East Asian counterparts, don’t do things in half measures. They’re an emotional, patriotic and jingoistic nation on all fronts. Just as the current political and military showdown with North Korea has understandably awakened a fervent nationalism, the very mention of a World Cup is likely to send a Korean into raptures. There are discerning football fans in South Korea. Some are as devoted as those born on Old Trafford’s doorstep. And so, they when asked on their team’s chances in the tournament, they’ll consider it for a while and offer an intelligent opinion. Spain, Brazil and England are the usual suspects.
But for many, the opportunity to look no further than their own noses is too great. “Han-googo! Han-googo!” (“Korea! Korea!”) You see, baseball is king here. Kia Tigers, my local team, are dominant. My local professional football team is Gwangju Sangmu, the army team. They aren’t very good (eleven soldiers, employing a distasteful long ball approach is little match for the top dogs of Seoul) and so interest in football all year round is minimal. Last month I went to see a K League game in the Guus Hiddink World Cup Stadium, twenty minutes from my apartment. As the name suggests, it was constructed for the 2002 World Cup here and paid host to the Quarter Final between South Korea and Spain, which the home side won on penalties. But the game (a drab 1-0 home victory) was abject at best. The 44,000-seater stadium paid host to fewer than 2,000 and the whole thing had an anti-climactic feel to it and the stadium has the unwanted glow of a white elephant.
Accordingly, most peoples’ views on the beautiful game are a trifle warped. Park Ji Sung is the best player in the world. Bolton Wanderers star Lee Chung Yong isn’t far behind him. Unfortunately for them, it simply isn’t true. A Korean team is highly unlikely to lift the 2010 World Cup; North or South. North Korea is the most mysterious nation to have lined up at this, or any edition of FIFA’s top blue riband showpiece. Reports on their warm-up games have suggest that they will compete with an ultra-defensive mentality, in an attempt to stifle the opposition. By all accounts, they are a better side than expected. They will hope to frustrate, but a quick glance at their draw for the group stages suggests that’s about all they can hope for. Their draw of Portugal, Ivory Coast and Brazil is the toughest of the lot.
South Korea, on the other hand, has a little more cause for optimism. They reached the semi final stage in 2002 (albeit with some dubious and hotly contested referring decisions). They have got players, in the aforementioned Park and Lee, as well as 2002 hero Ahn Jung Hwan (formerly Perugia, Metz and Duisburg) and Park Chu Young (Monaco), with genuine European experience. The draw too has been kinder to them, pitting them against Nigeria, Greece and Argentina; second place is all to play for. A victory in the backyard of bitter rivals Japan in the run up to the tournament only heightened World Cup fever. A couple of wins in the tournament would see things reach boiling point.
But after the tournament, things will more than likely return to normal. Any Western game featuring a Korean will be big news, but most other football will play second fiddle to baseball. The profile of the game here has certainly risen since 2002, but perhaps not to the level the local FA and FIFA would have hoped. Despite this, the government has launched an ambitious bid to host the 2022 event on their own. There’s no doubting that they have the infrastructure in place. 2002’s tournament was spread thinly over eleven cities here, each with brand new stadiums; and that was only as a co-host! With worries over South Africa’s readiness for this year’s Cup and Brazil’s capability to network the vast country for 2014’s, FIFA could do a lot worse than to look once more to the Hermit Kingdom. It boasts the fastest train system in the world and is easily navigable. Perhaps it would finally give the game the final push it needs to become top dog.
For the moment, though, the focus is on the here and now. If, after the miserable failure of Northern and Republic of Ireland, you’re looking for a late horse to back, look no further than the Korean duo. You never know, you might be surprised!