On Sunday night, the South Korean National Football team played an International Friendly against Ecuador here in Seoul. A sold-out crowd of 65,000 watched the home side defeat their opponents by a score of 2-0; a solid win in South Korea's first game of preparation for next month's World Cup.
However, even with World Cup signage plastered on every corner convenience store and shirts, hats, and World Cup flip flops being sold at every mega-store, there is still a major question: Do South Korean fans actually care about the World Cup?
The answer really is a very, very qualified yes.
Recently I had a chance to attend my first K-League football game in South Korea. The game pitted the hometown Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma against the visiting Chunnam Dragons.
In a game that saw some pretty decent football, and a 4-0 victory for the home team, there was hardly anyone at the stadium. I was shocked to find that this fairly modern stadium attracted maybe 1,000 fans on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in May. After all, the tickets were cheap, the football was good, and the World Cup is just around the corner. I felt for sure that a large crowd was to be expected.
Come to find out, K-League football games don't draw very well in South Korea. The big sport here is baseball, and it seems that people only have passing interest in football.
So, how can you explain a sold-out crowd for an International friendly, nearly every Manchester United game being broadcast on the Korean equivalent of ESPN, and one of the biggest national heroes being United player, and South Korean captain, Park Ji-Sung?
Easy, national pride.
Admittedly I haven't been in Korea for very long, coming up on three months to be exact. But, if there is one thing that I know for sure, Koreans love Korea. They are all about it.
And who can blame them. They have taken a country that was torn apart and practically destroyed nearly 60 years ago and turned it into a thriving first-world country in barely two generations. Couple that with the fact that they have a hostile regime just under an hour outside of their capital and it creates a pretty fervent national identity.
When it comes to football, the average South Korean really doesn't seem too concerned on a day to day basis.
However, put their national team on a course for potential greatness, the fans will come out of the woodwork.
Honestly, it isn't too far removed from my experiences as a child. Growing up, I was all about baseball. However, every four years when the World Cup came around you could find me glued to the TV set at all hours of the night. However, once the tournament was over, I likely wouldn't watch more than a handful of games for the next four years.
Ultimately, I was a US fan first, and a soccer fan a distant second.
Can the South Korean team do anything this year to start changing the minds of the average Korean? Honestly, it's not likely even with an appearance in the second round.
After all, their fourth place finish in 2002 resulted in only a minor uptick in football interest, and for only a short period of time.
However, with the emergence of several high caliber players capable of competing in the best European leagues, there is certainly a window of opportunity for the team to capture to hearts of minds of the average South Korean fan.
Ultimately though, the South Korean fans will only care about the World Cup for as long as their home team stays in the hunt of the trophy.
So, here's to hoping for a nice long run in this year's tournament. Go Reds!
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