Friday, June 16, 2006

The World Cup Begins

It's World Cup time! I missed all the excitement when the World Cup was held here 4 years ago, but even though it's being held on the opposite side of the world this time the whole country is once again paying full attention to it. Living in America you tend to forget just how seriously half of the world takes soccer. Since two weeks ago Gwanghwamun intersection has been graced with a giant soccer ball ringed with TV screens and statues of a half dozen soccer stars. I'd almost been expecting Korea to be swept by deep depression if the national team failed to win any games. But most people I talk to have modest expectations for the Korean team, despite all the hype.

Korea played Togo on Tuesday, at 10:00pm local time. I'll be one person to admit that, despite being pretty good at that sort of thing, I don't think I could find Togo on a map of Africa. By evening on Tuesday, the whole Jongno and Gwanghwamun area downtown had filled with people, mostly young people, in red T-shirts and often wearing red devil's horns. The Red Devils. I'd thought about heading down to Gwanghwamun to check out the crowds after work (I got off at about 9:40), but I'd hurt my ankle earlier that day (it's better now) and decided instead to just head home. I took the bus rather than the subway because it would head right through the heart of Gwanghwamun; traffic slowed to a crawl there as the area had been comandeered by thousands and thousands of soccer fans in red, with a heavy police contingent keeping order, and the game televised the huge TV screens overlooking the intersection. Several energetic people were leading fans in chants of Dae Han Min Guk!, which is, basically, the Korean equivalent of U-S-A! U-S-A!

The scene at City Hall was apparently even more impressive.

I wasn't enough of a soccer fan to actively seek out a venue to watch the game, but I live in a small apartment and I could tell things were going well in the 2nd half when I heard my neighbors' cheering. The Korean fans did not go home unhappy; in fact, many of them apparently did not go home at all for some time. When I left my building just after 6:00 the next morning, two guys in red T-shirts and horns were stumbling in; when I reached a garbage-strewn Jongno there was still a sizable contingent of Red Devils.

The time difference will make Korea's next game interesting. Korea plays France on Monday morning at 4:00. Most Koreans who plan to watch the game (a sizable majority of the ones I've asked) are not getting up early on Monday - they're just not going to bed on Sunday night. If Korea wins, I wouldn't be too suprised if some people celebrated by getting smashing drunk at 7:00am on a Monday. Making the commute to work, whether by bus or by subway, will be very interesting. I am not optimistic about having full attendance in my 7:00 or 8:00 classes.

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