Wednesday, June 23, 2010

RTLS: World Cup Fever

One more time...대~한민국!

Korea takes sports very seriously: whether it's figure skating or baseball or taekwondo, fans are both extremely passionate and well-organized. This is, after all, the country that invented thundersticks. Even "imported" sports have been adapted to reflect Korean tastes and cultural norms. Baseball games here, for example, involve cheerleaders and intense audience participation coordinated by team cheer "conductors". And applause for home runs, even if scored by the other team. All accompanied, of course, by rice cakes and domestic brewskis and the occasional gold medal.

Soccer fans are even more devoted—an estimated 430,000 Koreans participated in outdoor cheering rallies for last night/this morning's 3:00 am World Cup match against Nigeria, including more than 60,000 at Seoul Plaza, and nearly 2 million fans were cheering outside during Thursday's game against Argentina. The city's streets rang throughout the night with cries of "Daehanminguk" and "Pilseung Korea." In addition to the flood of red shirts at City Hall, COEX, riverside parks, and along the sidewalks of Seoul, there were also supporters packed into 3-D movie theaters, restaurants, hotels, clubs and bars. Subway and bus lines ran on a special 24-hour schedule to accommodate the large crowds. Even the president was in on the action—Cheong Wa Dae (the official residence of the president) announced via Twitter that it would be serving free makgeolli to fans at Seoul Plaza.

I asked my boss today why Koreans are so passionate about the World Cup, in her opinion. She replied with two points, both of which seem quite accurate. First, the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup elevated the local soccer craze and street cheering culture to a whole new level—enormous taegukgis, fireworks, street rallies, coordinated car horn honking, national fight songs, the whole shebang. Second, the history of the Korean national soccer team is definitely an underdog story—despite an impressive fourth-place finish in 2002, most South Korean fans are not expecting anyone to bring home the FIFA trophy (though I might be attacked for saying that). It's not that there aren't any great players—Park Ji-sung of Manchester United and Cha Du-ri of SC Freiburg immediately come to mind—but there's no doubt that the South Korean soccer story is still about a struggle against the odds. And so when fans here cheer for the Taeguk Warriors, they're cheering with a sense of admiration, amazement, delirious happiness and fierce pride.

And who can blame them for wanting to make this party last?