From the archives:
This was a thick and heavy summer evening, but alas, not with metaphors or imagery, but grinding humidity. If one was inclined toward optimism, they were the kind of conditions to finally gauge how layers of clothing one can sweat through. Weather aside, I’d lucked into being in Seoul on the weekend of the K League’s biggest rivalry, and tickets were not only easy to come by, but dirt cheap.
Much like West Ham’s London Stadium, the legacy of era defining sport events seems to be filling huge, world class stadia with ill-fitting teams. South Korea’s World Cup stadiums have suffered much the same fate, it seems.
The creatively named Seoul World Cup Stadium is a wonderful 66,704 capacity arena that has yet to sell out for an FC Seoul home game. This is the capital city’s team, the country’s second most successful, no less. For all the passion Korean fans possess, there’s little by way of a distinct culture or tradition in regard to the domestic game yet. But that’s not to disparage their efforts; the attendance here was still an impressive 50, 787. Nevertheless, the English Premier League is king here, so struggles to gain traction are hardly surprising.
In such heat, a milk based beverage was ill advised, but John Fist cannot do without coffee. Unsure of the café scene in the city, I popped into a convenience store by the stadium and found a selection of chilled coffees in bottles and cans. There were Korean brands, and the obligatory Starbucks. For my sins, I opted for the latter. I’m not even sure if it had any tangible coffee in it, but it tasted familiar albeit edging me closer to diabetes. I decided to push myself more in the snack department, opting for triangle kimbap (rice wrapped in seaweed) with a spicy chicken centre. As far as convenience store sustenance goes, it was great. Heading back out into the humid evening with a milky, spicy pit of a mouth was a little less so, however.
Anyone with memories of the 2002 World Cup can surely recall the fervent support of the Korean fans. Remnants of this were still on display here, both familiar and unfamiliar. There were hardcore followings behind the goals, bouncing and singing, waving huge flags; but there were also pyrotechnics at kick off, cheerleaders standing on plinths within the confines of the main stand, and fans openly drinking alcohol in the stands. I suppose this is the luxury afforded to people who aren’t stupid enough to throw said vessels at other people because their team lost, or to use the contents of the vessel as an excuse to try and fight people in different colour shirts.
The opening stages of the game were played under the drifting fog of the aforementioned fireworks. The air was so thick with heat that it took an age to clear. My face had the kind of sheen that comes with lamination. Somehow the raucous fans behind the goal found the energy and enthusiasm to continue their singing and bouncing. Islets of sweat dotted on my back were being swallowed up into a huge landmass.
Suwon took an early lead through a penalty. The atmosphere in the main stand around me settled into one of familial ease. There were a lot of kids present, but they hadn’t come with their mates, but their parents. Food was passed around along with chatter. It’s nice to see football in such safe terms, but there was disconnect with a lack of passion. For all the idiocy of European football’s imagined tribalism, it certainly does help in getting the hackles up.
Unsurprisingly, the quality of football was sub-standard. There was bucketloads of passion and drive, but little by way of skill or nous. This was equally entertaining and frustrating, as the defences were generous, but the attackers wasteful.
Regardless, the fans on both sides were incredible, leaving the cheerleaders a little superfluous. In fact, on increasingly lengthening periods between routines, they stood around looking bored, just waiting for the call to leave their respective posts.
At half-time, a K-Pop girl group by the name of Glam performed on the pitch. I couldn’t tell you anything about the song, but I can tell you that the group disbanded a couple of years later amid accusations of blackmailing an actor with a compromising video. One of the band received a suspended prison sentence.
A neighbour of ours once filmed dad and his fifth wife having sex in the garden. They had been warring over a parking space for months, so the neighbour threatened to release the video if dad didn’t concede it. Dad asked to see the footage, and when he saw that the angle of the sunlight drew out the ruinous remnants of his six pack, he was delighted, even offering to leak the video himself. At the very least he wanted his own copy.
The second half was equally as dull as the first. Lines of sweat marked the front of my shirt where it was caught in moist rolls of stomach fat. The undercarriage of my underwear was sodden. For those not of a diehard nature, the atmosphere being generated to push Seoul on to an equaliser came from panels of card folded down into a hand clapper. It certainly made a racket, and was a damn sight more welcome than the still lingering vuvuzelas.
Suwon struck with a sucker punch counter attack in the 81st minute and the game ebbed out into nothing from there. No matter how often I wiped my increasingly drenched sleeves across my face, the sweat flooded back. It soon became apparent that my shorts had started to absorb moisture. Sections of my underwear were at saturation point.
At the final whistle, the fans filed out peacefully. As entertaining and impressive as it was, it felt too much like a warm up for the Saturday afternoon kick-offs back in England.