I don’t really have a bucket list but if I did, seeing a World Cup soccer game would be on it. So would trekking to a base camp on Everest, and sailing down the Yangtze river in a boat with eyes painted on it. I had assumed all of these would remain dreams until I saw an ad for a World Cup Qualifying match to be played in Ulsan.
It wasn’t a real World Cup match but it was as close as I was likely to get. And the chance to see Korea play in Korea wasn’t to be missed. I bought tickets. Alarmingly, there were no assigned seats; it was “free seating.”
The game didn’t start until 9 pm, and the weatherman was predicting heavy rain with occasional thunderstorms. I wondered how badly I wanted to see this game. Hoping the weatherman was wrong, I packed my raincoat in my school bag, grabbed my biggest umbrella, and headed off to school.
The upcoming match was on everyone’s minds. My students were VERY impressed that I was going. I gathered that even though Korea was almost certainly going to the World Cup, Iran had to win that night’s match to go. And Korea was determined not to let that happen.
My students tried to explain but I wasn’t entirely sure what the animosity was about. From what I could understand, Korea had gone to Iran last October for a match. Not only had they lost the game, they felt that they had been unfairly treated – low-quality accommodations and training areas, and visa troubles.
The Korean manager had promised to “make life painful” for Iran while they were in Korea. In addition, the Korean captain had promised to make the Iranians “shed tears of blood.”
How very medieval. Is it even possible to cry blood?
Between the threats, the weather, and the sheer number of people, emotions were running high in the stadium. Neither the promised thunderstorms nor the rain had materialized but the air was heavy with the promise of bad weather to come. It also felt like it was a million degrees, making everyone cross and sweaty.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted by unexpected signs.
No drinks of any kind- I understood that rule, vendors in the stadium needed to make some money too. No whistles – OK, confusing for the players. But the other rules were astonishing. No fireworks? No hand-held fans? And no KNIVES? Who brings a knife to a soccer game?
The stadium gates opened at 6:30pm, and we arrived a few minutes later. Already the stands were packed. The stadium has a seating capacity of 44,466 but I suspect that far more tickets than that had been sold. By kick-off, every seat, every aisle, every stair and every square inch of free space had been filled.
And then the Koreans disappointed me. I love Korea, and most Koreans I’ve met are lovely people. But at the soccer game, they were remarkably childish.
Every Korean player to step on the pitch was greeted with cheers and applause. Every Iranian was booed. Most Koreans refused to stand for the Iranian national anthem; many actually booed. Seriously? Had the entire stadium failed kindergarten?
Once the game started, things got better. It was amazing to be with so many people, all yelling and cheering for the same thing.
Both teams played well but the Iranians won, 1-0.
Once again, the Koreans in the stadium forgot the Golden Rule. As the Iranian team ran a well-deserved victory lap around the pitch, the crowds threw bottles, cans and other garbage at them. One of the Iranian trainers was injured by flying debris and had to be helped off the field.
Everyone began to leave but we decided to sit and eat snacks for a while until the crowds had died down. Good thing we stayed, the show was not over!
There was a performance by a KPop girl-group called Secret,
Finally, amidst more flashing lights, and poofs of smoke, the Korean World Cup team was presented.