I’ve always been a bit of a coward, yet paradoxically, always been pretty keen on scaring the crap out of myself. I think I forget the first part until right before I’m about to do the second. Last week I had a couple of days off work, so I decided I’d go to Daegu to jump off a building. Daegu is Korea’s third city (if, like many, you consider Incheon to be part of Seoul) and home to Woobang Tower, the tallest tower in Asia. They’ve built an amusement park around it, WoobangTower Land, which seems similar in scale to Gwangju’s own Family Land: pretty small, but not bad for an afternoon if you’re at a loose end.
Woobang Tower is 202m high (312m in altitude) and is similar in structure to the CN Tower in Toronto, formerly the world’s tallest free-standing structure (553m) and one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World. At the top of Woobang Tower is a revolving restaurant. There’s a 360° observation deck which gives you stunning, panoramic views of the city below which, incidentally, is huge. Coming from a small Irish town, Gwangju seemed sprawling to me (especially from the top of Mudeung Mountain), but Daegu is a massive step up in terms of scale. From the top of Woobang Tower, you really get an idea of how big it is.
We set off from Gwangju early in the morning and arrived around lunchtime. There were three of us, two jumpers and a photographer, and we met another friend in Daegu who jumped with us. We were all excited; laughing and joking without giving a moment’s consideration to what we were about to do. That was until the Tower became visible in the distance on the taxi ride to Woobang Land. It dominates the horizon. The closer we got, the taller it seemed and when we were within a few hundred metres of it, we saw a little gangway protruding from near the top. This was where we would fall from.
Feeling a little sheepish (and not a little sick) we made our way around the perimeter of the park until we reached the foot of the Tower. We paid (for three people, it was 100,000W, very reasonable) and got on the elevator for the 76th floor. The laughing stopped. Suddenly, it wasn’t funny anymore. Looking at each other for some sort of comfort was futile; the others were either praying or holding their hands over their faces. Yikes. There was a teenage girl ahead of us in the queue so we could see exactly what we had let ourselves in for and as she shimmied closer to the edge of the “plank”, white as a ghost, I felt nothing but sympathy!
The jump itself is not a bungee, which I initially thought, but a sky-jump. It’s like base jumping, except you have a cable attached to your back. Kitted out in the finest race suits this size of Talladega Nights, we decided on which order we would jump in (I was second) and then waited. As with most adrenaline-based activities, this is by far the worst part. Every sort of eventuality runs through your head until eventually, you’ve thought of all of the worst things that can happen and an accepting calm descends over you; at least for a minute. When my turn came I was led out to walk the plank. They strapped a harness onto me and explained a few things to me about what was going to happen. The problem is, I don’t speak Korean. I just smiled and nodded, such has become my custom in this fine nation.
I stood at the edge of the gangway for about a minute, getting properly strapped in. Then, I leaned forward, looking at the ground beneath me… it seemed like miles away! The attendant told me to let go and just like that, I was in suspended animation, 132 metres above a sprawling Korean metropolis. Hanging there, horizontally, was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had. I was trying to squeeze out a smile, as the Korean guy is taking pictures of me (as part of the package, you get some photos and a certificate). And after what seemed like minutes (maximum hang time: 30 seconds), I was falling. This part is not frightening. You drop at a leisurely speed to a target at the bottom, where you’re released from your harness and left to ponder your “achievement”. Breathless and a little befuddled, I was greeted at the bottom by my friends. What a rush! For only 33,000W, the Woobang Tower Sky Jump is highly recommended.
After four years of hyperbole and anticipation, the World Cup is almost over. Few months on the calendar command so much effort from the media and our livers. And if you support Korea or an English speaking nation, few reap so little reward. Maybe it’s because I’m Irish (neither North nor South qualified), or maybe it’s because the quality of the football on show has been so piss poor, but the previous sentiment rings particularly true for 2010’s edition. This has been the most tedious World Cup in living memory. Granted, it has improved slightly as it’s gone on, but at the beginning, it was less like pulling teeth, more like having your legs ripped off by a giant, vengeful spider.
From Italia 90, I remember the evergreen Roger Milla (whose passport was reported to have flattered him to the tune of ten years) pickpocketing the Argentine goalkeeper to send the reigning champions reeling in the first game. USA 94 evokes memories of Bebeto’s ‘baby cradle’ goal celebration for the champions elect Brazil (not to mention an abysmal penalty effort from Diana Ross in an opening ceremony, dripping with cheese). From France 98, Zinedine Zidane’s stellar performances, claiming a first title for the hosts whilst simultaneously announcing himself as the greatest player of his generation, stick out in the mind. Four years later, the over-performance of South Korea as well as Roy Keane’s infamous ‘toys from his pram’ routine will take some forgetting. 2006’s edition in Germany produced one of the greatest passing goals of all time, when Esteban Cambiasso put the finishing touches to a glorious lesson in fluidity that began 24 passes previously. Zidane also took the opportunity to remind us that his temper is almost as great as his talent, delivering a charge at Marco Materazzi in the final that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a goat farm (it’s worth noting that since Zidane’s retirement, France have failed to win a single game at an international tournament).
But this year has been bereft of quality and yet to produce any truly memorable moments. It says a lot when the main talking points have been the cacophonic drone of the vuvuzela and the failure of some of the “top” sides to even show up. This is the lowest scoring World Cup to date. There have been less red cards than four years ago and whilst aggression doesn’t always equal entertainment, I would happily trade some of the snore-fests we’ve had to endure for something even slightly resembling passion . Many will argue that France shouldn’t even have been at the finals, after the Hand of Gaul incident that sent the Irish crashing out last November and there’s little doubting Ireland would have put on a better show. As it is, a nation not famed for its temperament bickered their way through the tournament, limping out after finishing bottom of a group they were clear favorites to win. French Squad captain Thierry Henry has since met with Nicolas Sarkozy to find out what just went wrong. I imagine the pair are still huddled together, scratching their heads in a dimly lit corner of the Élysée Palace, trying to get to the bottom of things. Forgive me, but my Schadenfreude must be allowed to come up for breath occasionally.
The reigning champions Italy, meanwhile, also faced an inglorious exit. A group containing Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand was the easiest on paper and their showing was as much an indictment of Marcello Lippi’s refusal to waver from his triumphant squad of 2006 as it was the Azzuri’s much vaunted, yet universally loathed cattenaccio. A flaccid England side hobbled through to the second round, to be resolutely dispatched by an unfamiliar, flowing German outfit that will meet the impressive Argentines in the Quarter Final. The English media were quick to jump on the back of Fabio Capello: a coach who has won titles in every country he’s worked. In the aftermath of the 4-1 mauling, one clueless pundit was even brazen enough to suggest that not one of the German players would make the England team, which, he opined is “littered with world class players”.
Whilst Capello did look a trifle clueless tactically (particularly in his replacement of Jermaine Defoe with the lumbering Emile Heskey when the team needed goals) and he fell under the curse of fitting square pegs in round holes that has plagued his predecessors, this “Golden Generation” has underachieved at international level for years. Like the French and the Italians, it’s time for a new approach. Perhaps this dismal showing has provided the kick up the arse required.
Pre-tournament favorites Spain were slow out of the traps, losing to Switzerland and struggling against Chile, but new Barcelona signing David Villa looks to be hitting top gear at just the right time. Worryingly for coach Vicente Del Bosque though, is the form of Fernando Torres. Villa’s strike partner has looked sluggish and off the pace, prompting speculation that he’s carrying an injury. There is more than capable backup on the bench, but the Spaniards’ progression may depend on whether Del Bosque is ruthless enough to sacrifice El Nino.
So, who has impressed? Well the Dutch have cruised through looking more like Germans, and vice versa. The pair will do well to displace the South American duo of Brazil and Argentina, though. 1994’s winning captain Dunga has built a team in his own image: tenacious, efficient and unspectacular. Of course, it is augmented with the flair of Kaka and Robinho, but this is a decidedly un-Brazilian team. The Argentines have (along with the Germans), been the most striking side so far.
Relying, as ever, on tippy-tappy, one touch football, with the genius of Lionel Messi primed to unlock any defence in the competition, they have sailed through to the Quarter Finals. But what makes them infinitely more likeable is the presence of footballing genius and all round mad bastard Diego Maradona at the helm. His last appearance at a World Cup was cut short by his failing a drug test. What odds a triumphant return? Well, having struggled through qualifying and insisting on playing four central defenders at the back, it would seem his tactical nous from the sideline doesn’t compete with his brilliance on the field; but a run to the final is certainly feasible.
Of the less glamorous sides, Paraguay have the joint honor of being responsible for the most boring ninety minutes of my life as they edged the Japanese on penalties in Round 2. I will never get that time back. Uruguay (completing an unprecedented quartet of South American countries in the Quarters), face an athletic Ghanaian side bidding to become the first African nation to reach a World Cup semi final. They may never have a better chance.
And as for the Koreans? Well, they performed admirably: a side with few superstars, well-drilled and playing to their strengths. As demonstrated against Argentina in the Group Stage, when up against competent fire power, they have little answer. The adage also rang true against Uruguay in Round 2. Alas, for half a World Cup, I had a team to cheer for, which added a well needed element of spice. Now that they’re gone, I can go back to bitching about vuvuzelas and bemoaning the benign punditry on every channel I stream. And I can’t say I’ll miss the “Fighting Korea” adverts, either.
Here’s raising a well worn glass to the prospect of some decent entertainment. C’mon, it’s not too late.
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!
Coming to Gwangju: The Road Less Traveled
I’m going to level with you from the outset: twelve months ago, I’d never even heard of Gwangju. My geographical knowledge of the peninsula was sketchy at best and I was as guilty as every other naval-gazing Westerner in assuming South Korea began and ended in Seoul. So I’ll forgive those of you who have yet to be awakened to the undoubted charms of this parochial southern city. A year down the line, my eyes are open. I’ve lived and breathed Gwangju for a month now and as the novelty wears off, it’s being replaced by something new: a warm, quiet air of contentment. Gwangju will never rival Seoul or Busan for variety of nightlife. Nor will it ever lay claim to being a truly international city. But it has charm in abundance, a rich and shocking history and a friendliness I’ve experienced nowhere else in the world.
Admittedly, I came to Gwangju on a whim. I could’ve gone to Seoul and had offers elsewhere, but on the limited information available to me, I plumped for this one. If, like mine was, your knowledge of the city is based solely on the obligatory Wikipedia article, forum posts and blog comments, you could be excused for thinking it was a rural backwater – an outpost of civilization housing hicks and rednecks. This notion was dispelled as soon as I rolled into the bus station. Perhaps it’s because I’m Irish (Dublin, our largest city, has a population of only one million), but to me, Gwangju is a huge city. With that comes the usual facilities, infrastructure and places to go. As with much of Korea, Gwangju looks as though it was dropped randomly to the earth, landing, as it is, in a huge ravine, flanked on each side by lush, green mountains.
For a budding hiker, Mudeung Mountain offers the greatest challenge. At over 1,200 feet, it’s one of the biggest summits in Jeollanam-do. The view from the top is spectacular and it’s worth setting a day aside to climb it. But you can’t help but feel you’ve cheated a little when greeted by a carpeted trail towards the top… perhaps it won’t appeal to the more intrepid climber, it’s not exactly off the beaten track. For added spice, try trekking up it in 85 degrees after a heavy night on the soju. Crash helmet, recommended.
A few years back, the Korean government afforded Gwangju the status “A Cultural Hub City of Asia”. Until 2023, they will pump about $1.8 billion into a project that is an attempt at rebalancing the culture of South Korea. Previously so much resource was ploughed into Seoul, with the rest of the country being left behind. Already the regeneration projects are visible. Some areas of the cities have been transformed. Gwangju is gradually being pulled into the 21st Century. Since the city’s nickname is The City Of Light, light is the loose theme of the project. The centerpiece of the project, a Forest of Light, looks stunning! The chances are I won’t be in Gwangju until 2023 and won’t reap most of the benefit. But the future looks bright for the culture of the city.
It’s another feather in the cap of the locals, who consider themselves to be pioneering in their beliefs and the guardians of Korean democracy. Last month (May 2010) was the thirtieth anniversary of the Gwangju Democratization Movement, a popular rebellion led by students in the city, which lasted for over a week and was protesting against the newly installed military government. The students took up arms and took over the city, bestowing civil rule upon it for days. Famously though, they were crushed by the Korean Army. The number of people killed is disputed, although people here confidently predict that it ran into the late hundreds. Some people are still unaccounted for, thirty years on. In fact, the uprising was billed as a Communist movement during the propaganda hit 1980s. But the past month has been an eye opener. The people of Gwangju are proud and they took the anniversary as an opportunity to celebrate and commemorate. There was music, speeches, dancing, drumming and plenty of drinking. The same streets that had been dashed with blood three decades ago were now streaming with soju, makgeolli and tears of the veterans.
One man who had been injured in the crushing of the rebellion was at pains to convey to me the depth of emotion the people felt. “Every time I look at this building,” he said pointing at a large, nondescript structure, “I remember that time. I have flashbacks and become frightened.” His tale is common here. The celebratory efforts and mood is admirable, coming from a nation of civil unrest I can empathize. The character and steely determination of the Gwangju people is palpable. The city’s makeover will give their home a shiny new face, but the locals are certain that it won’t banish the ghosts of thirty years ago. They won’t allow that to happen.
After only one month in Gwangju, I have learned a lot about Korean people, with the anniversary acting as a window to their souls. The city courts modernity whilst having its roots firmly based in tradition. This hybrid, I feel, is an excellent model in learning about Koreans and their culture. Come see it for yourselves.