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12 June

A football experience – Last night my wife and I went to a friendly match between Argentina and Korea. It was my first time at a football match in Korea, and my wife’s first time in a stadium for a sporting match of any kind.

My ticket

We arrived early and decided to take a look around the stadium. I was surprised to find that the stadium had a mall running around the perimeter under the seats, complete with a food court and a supermarket, and a cinema on the first floor. You just have to admire how thoroughly they embraced commercialism when they built the stadium.

During our tour around the mall we heard a message over the public announcement system saying that a lost boy had been found. They started the description of the boy by saying that he was wearing a red shirt, and I couldn’t help but laugh. There wasn’t a single child in that stadium who wasn’t wearing a red shirt. Red is the official color of the Korean team, and the stadium was a sea of bright red, with the occasional white and pale blue Argentine uniform sprinkled in for good measure.

It was raining, but fortunately our seats were under cover and we stayed dry for the duration of the game, unlike the players on the field. The Korean side started out playing well, and even applied some pressure in the first thirty minutes. After that, though, they seemed to fall apart, and the goal by Argentina with only a few minutes left in the half was only a matter of time.

I had hoped that Korea would come out in the second half with renewed determination, but they merely picked up where they had left off. The first thirty minutes of the second half was dismal, with Argentina running circles around the Korean defense and smothering anything Korea tried to do on offense. Only down a goal, you would have thought the attitude would have been to score as soon as possible, but it appeared that Korea were just trying to hold on.

The woman next to me apparently knew little about football, but this didn’t stop her from screaming consistently at the players. Whenever a Korean player passed back, for example, she would shout, “You’re going the wrong way!” During the second half Argentina had a free kick from within striking distance, but on the foul a Korean player had gone down. Play stopped, and he eventually got up and walked off the field as Argentina prepared to take the free kick. Exasperated, the women next to me yelled, “How can you leave at an important moment like this?!” Unable to take it any longer, I calmly explained to her that he had no choice but to leave, and that he would come back in at the first opportunity. It was a futile effort, of course, but it did make me feel a little better, and it quieted her down for a few minutes.

Fifteen minutes from fulltime, though, Korea suddenly came to life again. They began to penetrate the Argentine defense, and they came up with some beautiful chances. There were two chances at least that positively should have been goals, but Korea suffered from the same problem they have suffered from since I first got here—they just couldn’t pull the trigger. Ahn Jung Hwan, the World Cup star who scored the goal that defeated Italy (and who also scored the winner in Korea’s recent friendly with Japan) sat on the sideline throughout the whole game, apparently not in any condition to play. Korea also lacked any other strikers who could close the deal, like my personal favorite, the up-and-coming Park Ji Sung (who now plays in Holland).

And so we all spent the last fifteen minutes on our feet, cheering as Korea drove down the field, only to throw up our hands in dismay at every missed chance. Time finally ran out, and the Korean players simply sat down on the field. Most likely they were frustrated that they couldn’t score even one goal with all the chances they had. It was embarrassing, really. A few years ago, I suppose, everyone would have been thankful for a 1-0 loss to Argentina, but this one left a bitter taste in my mouth. They could have easily tied the game, and they might have even won it—but they didn’t.

Since the World Cup, football has become something of a religion in Korea. It was always fairly popular, but it didn’t have the following it does now. Of course, everyone watched the Korea-Japan matches—those, after all, are a matter of national pride—but I didn’t pay much attention to the other matches. Last summer, though, it was impossible not to get swept up in the moment, and when Korean advanced from group play my wife and I caught Red Devil fever too.

It was a euphoric time. Before the tournament started there were some who held onto the hope that Korea would make it out of group play for the first time in history, but most were realistic. Just one win, some said. A win and a draw, hoped others. I was always circumspect when questioned, since Korea and the U.S. were in the same group. Everyone figured that Portugal would certainly go through, and that only left one other spot, so I kept quiet at first.

Then Korea defeated Poland and the U.S. upset Portugal, and I began to hope—could it be that both of my teams would go through? The U.S.-Korea match ended in the best possible result for me—a 1-1 draw, and everything seemed to be going perfectly. But then the U.S. stumbled in their match with Poland, and it was up to Korea to do the unthinkable—defeat Portugal. By that time, though, people were starting to believe, and Korea pulled off a 1-0 win with a beautiful goal by Park Ji Sung (at which point he became my favorite Korean player), putting them at the top of their group.

And the dream just continued as Korea came from behind against Italy to tie up the match in the final minutes and go on to score a golden goal in overtime in the round of 16. Then they won the nerve-wracking penalty shootout against Spain in the semifinals. It finally ended against the stone wall of Germany, and a loss against Turkey put Korea in fourth place—something that wouldn’t have even been dreamt of before the tournament.

Most Koreans attribute the performance of their side to the excellent coaching of Guus Hiddink (who practically became a national hero) and the Korean spirit—most were realistic enough to realize that it wasn’t all skill that got that them far. A year later, though, we’re looking at a different side. Granted, they didn’t have a number of their World Cup stars, but it was still rather disappointing. Everyone remembers what it felt like last year during the tournament, and I think everyone wants to someday feel that way again. It all seems like a dream now, so long and so far away, but every time I hear the cries of “Dae Han Min Guk!” (official term for Korea, literally “The Great Republic of Korea”) and “O Pil Seung Korea!” (“Korea Victorious!”) it almost feels like I’m back in that dream.

True, I was disappointed with last night’s loss, and I would have been much happier with a win, or even a draw, but I don’t consider it a waste. After all, if all I wanted to do was watch the game, I would have stayed home and watched it on television. We went to the stadium last night not only to see the game, but to have an experience as well—the same reason we sat out in the hot sun in front of city hall for hours last year just to watch the Italy-Korea match.

Whenever you get a large number of people who are united in purpose together in the same place, there is the potential to get swept up in an ecstasy that transcends the individual. This is what anthropologists like Durkheim call “the religious experience,” and it can be seen at any large gathering—rallies, conventions, raves and other parties, sporting events, and, of course, worship services. Human beings are social animals, and this ecstasy is a basic human experience—it might even be called a basic human need.

In this state of ecstasy there are no walls, no boundaries, no classes, no hierarchy. It could even be said that there are no individuals, that everyone is part of a greater “one,” the community. No individual can exercise absolute control over the ecstasy; at best an individual may sway the ecstasy in one direction or another. Everyone is swept up in the feeling of being at one with the community, with the world, and with the universe.

And so, even as I watched the Korean side fall apart on the pitch last night, I was having a good time. I was part of the community, cheering and shouting along with everyone else, and the boundaries that so sharply divide us in everyday life were far less noticeable. I am used to being and feeling alone, and every now and then it is nice to feel like a part of the greater whole. It is nice to be able to enjoy how fundamentally similar we all are, rather than be conscious of the differences.

On the surface, my wife and I went to watch a football match last night, which Korea lost one-nil to Argentina. Below the surface, though, we went to feel the ecstasy of being one with the community, and to maybe recapture a bit of the euphoria we all felt last year during the World Cup. My wife is hooked, of course, and next time she wants to be closer to the action. I’m looking forward to going back, too, and getting swept up in the moment and forgetting about everything else for a while. And if our boys score a goal or two, that will just be the icing on the cake.

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