Tuesday, 18 December 2007

World Cup 2006

I went on a losing streak. In the space of one month, I took a rooting interest in a number of sports teams. My hockey team lost the Stanley Cup final, the basketball team I rooted for lost the NBA final, the first team I picked to root for in the World Cup (Korea) lost, then my second team (Netherlands) then my third team (Argentina), then my fourth choice (England), and then my fifth choice (Brazil) were all eliminated. Finally, in the final, the team I liked won, but it was looking pretty ugly for a little while. I'd almost like to test this out -- if any of you are into sports betting, send me an e-mail and ask which team I like, and I'll tell you. Bet against my team, and see if my bad luck continues for your benefit.

As most of you know, Korea qualified for the world cup this year, and the world cup ran from June until about a week ago. There are few things which bring Koreans together like the success of Korea's people, worldwide, whether it's a half-Korean NFL player winning the Superbowl MVP (Hines Ward), or a Korean actress scoring a major role on an American TV series (Kim Yun Jin on "Lost") or even a major Hollywood star marrying a Korean (Nicholas Cage and Wesley Snipes movies are inexplicably, disproportionately popular here, because both men have Korean wives -- you can count on their films staying on screens in Korea for about triple the time other movies of similar quality would survive in cinemas). All this considered, when team Korea qualifies for the biggest sporting event in the world, bar none, especially on the heels of their most improbable success at the the last world cup, well, let's just say everybody was on board, starting about four months before the first world cup game.

On the Tuesday night of Korea's first game, I went to a restaurant right near the city center (where literally millions gathered to watch the game on mega-screens) about four hours before the game began, and staked out a table with my best friend Matt. Then, as time went by, our friends arrived, and we watched the game (all dressed in red) in a packed restaurant of rabid fans, on a projector screen. The energy there was fantastic, but at halftime, I took a stroll with three friends, down to City Hall, one of the two largest open-air plazas in central Seoul, so see the crowd, if only because I'd never seen a million people in one place at one time before, and was likely never to have the chance again without getting mauled in a riot. We walked down, took some pictures, angled around (pushing through crowds all the while), until we finally had a spot where we could see, if not the projector screens, a good large part of the crowd. Just as we got to that spot, and looked over the absolute OCEAN of people wearing red, Korea scored, and we were treated to the absolute insanity of a million people celebrating. I spent about five minutes just jumping up and down, caught up and pulled away in the pure excitement as surely as if it were a riptide pulling me out to sea. Then we went back to the restaurant and watched the rest of the game there. Korea won (its only win in the tournament) so the microbrewery where we saw the game served free beer until the wee hours. We were tired the next day at work, but all the students were exhausted too, from watching the game, so we just wrote off most of our classes and talked about soccer instead.

I didn't watch the game Korea tied with France, because it started at 4am on a weeknight. However, at 6am I was woken from my sleep by shouts bursting from a large percentage of the windows in my neighbourhood, when Korea scored.

The third game in the group play part of the tournament, vs. Sweden, was at 4am on a Saturday morning. I'm sure it was at a much better time for viewers in Germany, but that's life. I went back to City Hall, to catch the energy for a second time, just because, buddy, why on earth are you living if you don't go out for an experience like that? I arrived there (after a soiree with my coworkers) at about 1230am, and already there were probably 6-800000 people bunched in for the all night party which had already begun at about 7pm, including Korean pop stars, dancing girls, traditional Korean music performers, and a lot of battle-cry chants (one of which I learned. It went "You are my champion, if we sing together, we will have victory!" and I learned that if you mispronounced one consonant, you sang instead "You are my champion, if we die together, we will have victory!", to the great amusement of my Korean friends). It was an all-out shoving match to find a place to sit (on the pavement) and watch the game. Long lines of people were standing, trying to move around, and getting shoved and crowded back and forth, so that it felt about the way I'd imagine it would feel to get stuck inside a washing machine. I got lucky: there was a sudden shift in the crowd for unknown reasons, a scramble, and suddenly I found myself seated (almost folded into thirds) in a spot where I could watch the game. The people around me were silly, fun and young, and enjoyed my trying to get in on the chanting and shouting (which was all in Korean, of course), asking me where I was from and telling me to sit my @$$ down when I stood to take pictures of the crowd on my cellphone. (Check out this picture: it was like this in every direction.)

The only problem was that Korea lost. And didn't even score, so I never got a chance to join the "we scored a goal" dance in the middle of the crowd. However, I've never had so much fun people watching while folded into thirds with aching knees and a sore bottom, in my entire life. The brawl for seating was entertainment enough, just on its own, to make it worth the all-nighter, and the bummer of still needing 30 minutes to pick through a crowd of dispirited red-dressed "Red Devils" freaks (that's the team's name) shuffling their ways to the nearest bus/subway/wherever two million people go when their team loses.

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