From the archives:
The Jeju World Cup Stadium is that rare thing in the world of modern stadia. This is no bland, featureless shoebox on a miserable industrial estate, oh no. This is a stadium that has been designed with its environment in mind. Jeju itself is a volcanic island to the south of the Korean peninsula, complete with Mount Halla, a dormant volcano, perched in the centre. As such, the overall shape of the stadium has been built to reflect the mouth of a volcano. Not only that, the roof, which only covers one stand, has been constructed in the style of nets used on traditional fishing boats. Best of all, however, the majority of the stadium is below ground level in an effort to avoid blotting the beautiful natural landscape that surrounds the stadium and the vistas from nearby peaks.
The stadium has a capacity of 35,657 and is home to Jeju United, a team essentially formed in 2006 after Bucheon SK moved approximately 280 miles over land and sea to fill one of the vacant World Cup Stadiums. As I found out, it is still woefully underused. In fact, tickets are sometimes given away if you spend enough money in local supermarkets.
Conveniently, one such supermarket is built right in front of the stadium itself. This creates somewhat of a novel tradition of people loading up on pizza, fried chicken, crisps, cakes and beer for an adult barbecue in the stadium itself. With this many empty seats around, you can get quite the spread going. If the football’s good, too — bonus.
The coffee options in the vicinity were limited, so I headed through the gate and picked up something called ‘mix-coffee’. Essentially it’s instant coffee in a packet with sugar and powdered milk. Needless to say, it tastes like creamy, sweet coffee. It’s light years ahead of the gutter scrapings that pass for instant in Albion, but it tastes too much like camping to be truly enjoyed.
But I wasn’t camping. I was at a football match. If there’s one thing I do know, football fans love their freshly ground, sustainably sourced, preferably single origin, coffee. And anyway, I’m not allowed to go camping. When I was eight I burnt down Dad’s tent when he fell asleep with a cigarette in his mouth after his twelfth whiskey. He screamed about how I don’t respect tents nor the sacred privilege of camping. If I ever went camping again, anywhere, he’d come and find me and burn my tent down. I’ve held him at his word.
As the game kicked off I was invited by a local to come and join somewhat of a hardcore element gathered in the front rows opposite the towering main stand. A lady nearby was banging a handheld, metallic drum of some kind. For some reason, I couldn’t recall its name. Even after three months of preparatory research on the cultural history of South Korea, which I’d condensed into a 367 page manuscript and brought with me, the name, and no doubt huge significance of this instrument escaped me. I felt ashamed, and bowed numerous times for forgiveness.
Built on to the front of this stand was a stage complete with speakers, a mic-stand and a group of frozen cheerleaders. They sporadically worked through their routines, more to get blood pumping to their extremities than anything else.
The Jeju United equivalent of a capo was buzzing on and around the stage, too. The microphone was evidently there for his purpose. To get the crowd engaged, he held up cards printed with the words of his chosen chants before starting a sing-a-long.
Now, I’m not a critic of football teams handing out scarves, flags and the like to create a colourful atmosphere. If anything, I encourage it. After Conservative austerity, people can’t afford to buy scarves anymore. Some of people even had to burn them for winter heat, or even eat them. This, however, felt a step too far.
To clear my head, I went to grab some food. My guilt at not knowing the name of the drum led me to be brave with my food choice. I opted for a bag of dried squid. Let me tell you, there is no greater dichotomy of revulsion and delight in one packet. It smells like the bedroom of a teenage boy with unfiltered internet access during the hottest summer ever recorded. The taste, however, was a tough, chewy delight.
The game was tied at 1-1 and was growing ragged as both teams sought out a winner. Low and behold, in the dying moments, the ball looped to Seo Dong-Hyun on the edge of the edge of the box. He executed a sweet volley back across the goalkeeper into the top corner. The place didn’t so much erupt as echo with the cheers of those few in attendance. A particularly passionate man a few seats down was so moved that he stripped off his shirt, roaring into the chill spring air before slumping into his seat and sobbing into that sacred fluorescent orange polyester.
If it wasn’t for the dried squid repeating on me in a series of pungent burps, I’d have roared fraternally in his face. Merely witnessing his joy was enough, however. The game ended 2-1. I couldn’t make eye contact with the drum lady on the way out.