The magnitude of support for Korea's team overwhelmed me the night I ventured to Gwanghwamun immediately after the victory over Portugal clinched a spot for Korea in the 2nd round of play. I had to see for myself the euphoria being unleashed there. So I bounded down the hill below my Segeomjeong villa and hopped on the first bus heading toward Gwanghwamun, ground zero of Red Devil revelry.
I alighted outside of Gyeungbokgung Station and immediately came up against a steady stream of raging revelers coming from ground zero, which only piqued my curiosity as I made my way through the red flow. On reaching the Sejong Cultural Center I was transfixed by a group of about a thousand Red Devils occupying the Center's steps and in a state of absolute frenzy. Then I reached the Gwanghwamun intersection, and, lo and behold, as far as the eye could see Jongno was a sea of red with fireworks arching over the red-clad multitude.
Prior knowledge of Red Devil revelry had not prepared me for what I was witnessing first hand, a collective primal scream that only intensified with each ensuing victory. This was the great opportunity that Koreans had pined for, the chance to crow to the world about who they were and why they were so proud of their ancestry. And who could fault them? Weren't they proving themselves in the premier international arena, the World Cup? All those inhibiting Confucian strictures on public displays of emotion were cast aside as Koreans turned the World Cup into an unabashed celebration of themselves.
Yet there was no hooliganism (the bane of European soccer) nor the rioting that frequently mars too many sporting events, even after victories. Despite the throngs of raucous Red Devils traipsing the streets night after night, I doubt if any of the city centre's lovely flowerbeds were ever trod upon. This jubilant but amazingly contained behavior did not go unnoticed by the international media, who were effusive in their commentary on the Red Devils' comportment.
The world as well was seeing Korea in a new light. On my return to the States this past summer I was often asked, "Did you see any World Cup matches?" rather than the same old questions about North-South tension. For Koreans the new millennium began at World Cup 2002.
The overwhelming success of Korea as co-host of the World Cup -- Guus Hiddink and the Korean players notwithstanding -- rests squarely on the shoulders of the Red Devils, who became the darlings of the international media, a story unto themselves. From the Opening Ceremony through the match with Germany, CNN's lens was in love with the Reds.
That Korea stole the World Cup limelight right from under co-host Japan's nose was a cultural coup without precedent; and that Korea, not China nor Japan, became the Asian soccer standard bearer to the world -- "ASIAN PRIDE" -- accorded Korea enviable status in the Asian hierarchy. This was especially gratifying given the apprehension among Koreans that the international media would turn World Cup 2002 into Japan's World Cup by focusing on perennial favorite Japan to Korea's detriment. Of course that was before CNN met the Red Devils.
This World Cup belonged to Korea simply because she wanted it more than Japan. Months before the Opening Ceremony, World Cup promotions began appearing around Seoul: buildings in the city centre displayed full-length promotional banners including portraits of all the Korean players near the Shinsegae fountain; the Gwanghwamun intersection already had become ground zero, a geometric soccer dome was in place there followed later by the huge soccer ball centerpiece at City Hall circle; and then there was the subway soccer art, particularly the blue and gold murals of Brazilian players wrapped around Yeouinaru Station's pillars. How prescient.
There were many permanent improvements to Seoul as well, such as little parks that make the city centre more pedestrian friendly. One such jewel is the Latin America Plaza, a superb example of landscape architecture in front of the Hyatt Hotel on Nam San. Even that wooden gazebo between the Ambassador Hotel and Hyehwa Gate comes to us courtesy of World Cup 2002.
By the eve of the Opening Ceremony, Seoul was ready to welcome the world. Yet there remained a nagging doubt among Koreans about whether all their efforts would pay off. After all, they were going head-to-head with vaunted Japan for World Cup tourists and international media attention, and the local hotels' very disappointing reservation figures were worrisome. Little did anyone know that all this preparation would not be for tourists but, rather, for Koreans themselves.
I don't think I can overstate the significance of Korea's successful co-hosting of the World Cup, especially vis- -vis Japan. For far too long Korea has been in Japan's cultural shadow: the latest fashion and music trends are seen and heard on the Ginza before they arrive in Myeong-dong. But this time it was the young Japanese who were transfixed by the Red Devils' enthusiasm and passion. And how the subdued Japanese envied the "hot-blooded" Koreans after their own Blues had been eliminated by Turkey. This time the young Koreans had it. "Be The Reds!" T-shirts, for example, quickly became hot fashion items, and were hawked on Tokyo streets.
And I do hope that this unprecedented show of support by the young Japanese for Korea is not lost on Koreans or a missed opportunity. Even though Japan has failed to mollify the grudge held by Koreans against her, a Tokyo stadium becoming the venue where Japanese Red Devils could publicly support their co-hosts against Germany strikes me as an olive branch offered by the youth of Japan to their Korean peers. Had the tables been reversed, would the Reds have been as supportive of the Blues?
When the controversial decision to co-host World Cup 2002 was announced, both nations grinned and bore it and mouthed platitudes about this unique opportunity to forge a more amicable relationship. Yet after this announcement the co-hosts cooperated about as closely as two ships passing in the night. It took the young Japanese to seize the opportunity, to offer the olive branch. And it's high time that this new generation of Koreans and Japanese availed themselves of other opportunities to transcend old enmity, such as a student exchange program like the one between Dongguk University and Sapporo Gakuin University in which Korean and Japanese students get along swimmingly. Lasting friendship, after all, is made between cultures, not governments.
For those who wish to relive those glorious days and nights of World Cup play, a colorful pictorial exhibition is on display in the Dong A Ilbo lobby.
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