Turning Japanese…I don’t think so

2002 is probably my favourite World Cup for a number of reasons.  Four years after I had attended my first tournament in France I was determined to not miss this one.  I had never been a fan of Asia as a region, although I have to admit I do have a penchant for far eastern ladies.  My mother, the original CMF once said at a family meal that she didn’t like anything in the Far East because of all that “Plinky plonky music”…Yes, my mother thinks that life in Japan, China and Korea is accompanied by some medieval Musak.

In 2001 I got the “best job in the world”.  Somehow I managed to blag a role that essentially saw me have to fly around Europe, first class all week, collecting air miles in return for a very fat salary and the occasional report on how certain sales teams were doing.  This was the second coming of the Internet bubble and you could not do better than working for a US internet company who literally threw money at everything.  In fact they were throwing too much money at everything and as 2001 became 2002 everything started to unravel.  The signs were quite evident…offices suddenly closing, doors being locked from the inside in others to stop the bailiffs and then wages not being paid.

I had at least the sense to plan my travel around Europe on Lufthansa and BA, collecting outrageous amounts of air miles for one purpose only – for the 2002 World Cup.  Tickets went on sale in early 2001 and were snapped up for the games in Japan, with all general sale tickets selling out within hours.  So I was left with South Korea – wasn’t my first choice but with some careful planning I managed to work out a decent schedule of a game a day for eight days plus a bit of sightseeing.  All I needed was the draw for the finals and England to be drawn in Daegu where I would be based and had a venue specific ticket.

So come 1st December I sat, eyes glued to the TV….According to the schedule I would be seeing thirteen different teams…So here goes….

Slovenia, Denmark, South Africa, Senegal, Uruguay – at this point I had had enough.  England had been drawn already in Japan and this looked crap.  My first game of Denmark v Senegal hardly filled me with joy.  But it got better especially when South Korea v USA was drawn.

Fast forward six months to late May in 2002.  My dream job is fast going down the pan.  May’s pay had been “delayed” and all of the staff were ask to attend a meeting at 11am on Friday 31st May in our London office.  I think everyone knew the game was up and we would all be told the company was bankrupt and we would be made redundant, owed in some (i.e my case) thousands of pounds.  Extra security had been brought in to stop the staff looting the offices.  The meeting took 30 minutes and then everyone calmly went across the road to the pub where the opening game between France and Senegal kicked off at 11.30am.   Management and security rubbed their hands at a job well done and disappeared off in their limo.  Two hours later, when the curse of the opening game had seen Senegal upset the French and a number of beers later, the staff swarmed back across the road and stripped the office of anything and everything.  Justice was done.

My justice came from the air miles I ha accrued that allow me to fly first class to Seoul and stay in some of the finest hotels (I know that because I saw Mr Blatter at three of them!) in Korea.  So three days after losing my dream job (incidentally I had managed to secure a move back to my previous job in the meantime albeit for less money than I was earning, but more than when I left them a year before) I landed at Incheon airport.  I knew nothing about the country, none of the language and had little idea where my hotel was.  But that is what travel is sometimes about.

My first game was later that day in the “suburb” of Suwon.  I got off a bus in what I thought was the right place but the squiggles looked the same.  Not for the last time on this trip as soon as I got my map out a lovely young lady appeared at my side and asked if I needed any help.  I told her my hotel name and she said she would walk me there, pulling out a small note book with some pre-prepared questions for visitors such as “Do you own a tree?”, “What is your favourite car?” and the timeless classic “Do you know Shakespeare?”.  She escorted me to my hotel and I offered to buy her a coffee but she was off to go and find some other westerner to help.

So day one – match one – Portugal 2 USA 3. What a start to my World Cup.  Portugal with Luis Figo were odds on favourite for this one.  Suwon was hardly rocking, and the stadium was decked out with a US and a Portuguese flag to wave on each seat.  Thirty five minutes into the game and the US were 3-0 up.  Shock number two of the tournament maybe? Two Portuguese goals were simply consolations.

Day two saw an internal flight from Seoul to Daegu, which is Korea’s 2nd biggest city.  As we left all of the group crew lined up beside the plane and waved us off –  my western suspicions were crying out “they know something you don’t know about the plane” but such kindness was becoming more and more regular.  I caught a taxi from the airport to the hotel.  I had no idea what the exchange rate was and when I paid the taxi a bell boy took my bag to reception.  The manager himself at the 5 star Imperial Hotel met me and asked how my long journey was.  “Fine” I said “I have only come from the airport”.

Within seconds he was on the phone, talking animatedly to someone, and within minutes my taxi driver arrived back and was made to apologise for over charging me.  My trip should have been £3 and he had charged me £4…Denmark v Senegal . Daegu’s World Cup stadium was probably the best in Korea.  Set in the hills outside the city it looked like the McAlpine Stadium on steroids (I refuse to call it the Galpharm).  A sixty three thousand seater cathedral to football, and on a scorching hot day the majority of the seats were taken up by locals who were either wearing a red or green t-shirt.  Senegal were on a high after the victory against France, but it was Jon Dahl Tomasson who scored from the spot early on.  Senegal walked in an equaliser early in the second half, putting both teams on 4 points and on the verge of the second round.

I headed off ten minutes before the end as I was attempting to see a second game in the day.  Some 250 miles south east is the city of Busan, the biggest port in Korea.  250 miles in two hours?  This was Korea not England so for the princely sum of £18.25 I has a seat on a train that would hit 220 miles per hour, with a seat back TV showing Cameroon play Saudi Arabia and a lovely Hostess serving me OB beer.  If you read the ticket conditions of any major football tournament it will say you cannot have a ticket for more than one game in a day.  Well Korea hadn’t quite hit the local excitement levels of Japan so for most games tickets could be purchased from ATM style machines in the city centres and airports.  I had purchased a ticket for my third game France v Uruguay from said machine at Incheon airport without any issue.

Busan’s Asiad Main Stadium looks like an upside down flan case and despite its 56,000 capacity only 39,000 had bothered to turn up.  They must have seen what was coming as the only incident of note was Thierry Henry getting himself sent off in the first half in a nil nil draw that confirmed the French’s elimination after just two games and 6 days in the tournament.

Day three and it was a trip north west to the town of Jeonju for Spain v Paraguay. A train then this time a luxury coach for the final leg.  With kick off approaching, and the driver knowing that a few of the passengers wanted to go to the game he took a detour from his route and dropped us at the stadium before retracing his steps.  Jeonju’s stadium was designed to resemble the sails of a traditional Korean ship but all I could see was waves of empty seats.  Again, this was supposed to be another sell out according to Blatter-news.  Spain had won their opening game but were behind after 10 minutes thanks to an own goal my Puyol.  They came good in the second half with three goals including a brace from Morientes.  However, my concerns were finding somewhere that was showing the England v Argentina game from Sapporo.  One thing Korea didn’t do well was bars which showed the football in.  In fact bars full stop.  After a fruitless search in the town centre I headed back to the bus station where I joined a dozen or so locals crowded round a small portable to watch Beckham lay his ghosts of 1998 to rest.  Full time and I had my hand shaken my every one before boarding my bus.

I arrived at Gwangju railway station at 1am, just in time to catch my train home.  I had booked a seat but when it arrived it was packed to the rafters.  We have all seen those pictures of people being squeezed on Japanese trains – well this was one of those.  I could see an empty seat in the carriage though and having fought my way through I realised this was actually my seat – it was simply not the “in thing” to do in Korea to take a reserved seat, irrespective of how busy it was.

After a morning of sightseeing in Daegu which involved a visit to “Korea’s scariest haunted house” and a wander around the Red Light District (by accident of course) where the working girls were offering a 10% discount for every goal scored by the Fighting Tigers in the forthcoming game against the US I headed back down to the Daegu stadium for South Africa v Slovenia. Hardly a classic and if it wasn’t for the promise of seeing the hosting of Miss Daegu at half time the crowd would have been asleep  after South Africa took the lead in the fourth minute.

Day five and I headed north to the capital, Seoul.  I went up the KLI tower, the highest point in Korea, wandered around the oldest in Korea, shopped in the biggest shop in Korea and then headed up to the 38th Parallel and a visit into the “Third Tunnel of Aggression”.  This tunnel is some 73 metres below the Demilitarised Zone, and over 1.5km long.  It was built so that the North Koreans could make a surprise attack on the South, but it was discovered by chance, although of course the North denied it was dug by them.

It seemed a shame to drag myself away for the football, but that is what I was here to do so at 6pm local time I was in the Incheon Munhak Stadium for Turkey v Costa Rica. West Ham’s Paolo Wanchope was on show for Costa Rica who were one win away from the second round.  A draw was probably a fair result, but more importantly I managed to pick up the best piece of World Cup merchandise – A puzzle postcard.  Well, actually I got three of them – essentially they were cardboard envelopes with small jigsaws inside depicting one of the stadiums.  A gift for a ground hopper who has everything maybe?

So one game left, and I had saved the best for last.  Tensions between the South Koreans and the US were running high after a series of incidents involving the US military, the last being a drunk driver who had killed a local girl in a crash.  So South Korea v USA was going to be an absolute corker.  The stadium was full.  60,000 Korean fans, all issued with Nike pink Korean shirts (including me) and 778 US fans.  Despite going a goal behind, the “fighting tigers” showed their true spirit in the second half and deserved their equaliser than would ultimately see them reach the second round.

So that was the end of my trip. Full of great memories, and some wonderful people and not a bit of plinky plonky music.  However, the World Cup was not all about Korea.  There was many other highlights, and these are my 10 from those four crazy weeks.

1. Rivaldo the cheat –One of the best players in the world coming into the tournament was undoubtably Barcelona’s Rivaldo.  In fact the bow-legged Brazilian had just agreed to move to AC Milan.  In their first game with Turkey he had pulled all the strings and had appeared to score the winner from the penalty spot.  The game was in the fourth minute of injury time when the Turkish player, Hakan Unsal kicked the ball at Rivaldo who was waiting to take a corner.  The ball struck his thigh, but the Brazilian collapsed to the floor holding his face. The referee was duped by his play acting and sent the Turk off. Rivaldo was subsequently fined by FIFA the massive sum of £24.54.  Shocking

2. The best Brazilian team ever? – Despite Rivaldo’s cheating, the Brazilians were wonderful to watch with such attacking flair all over the pitch.  They demolished China and Costa Rica, finishing the group stages with 3 wins out of 3, only one of two teams to do this.  A walkover against Belgium in Round 2 saw them play England in the Quarter finals where that goal (see point 8) sent then through to the Semi-finals and a second win of the tournament against Turkey.  A total of seven wins from seven games, scoring 18 goals in the process, 15 of which were scored by their attacking trio of Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo.

3. Rubbish start by the Germans – The opening games in the World Cup are cagey affairs.  No team can really afford to lose their first game, as we have seen in South Africa.  So Germany versus Saudi Arabia was one of those right?  Er no.  Germany scored eight times, debunking the myth that “there are no easy games in international football”.  Miroslav Klose scores the first World Cup hatrick for at least four years.  Impressive start.

4. Boring, Boring England – If the group games versus Sweden and Argentina were bad enough for the watching public, the game against Nigeria was the equivalent of a trip to the dentists.  Painful.  No imagination, no flair and no passion.  Ericsson stayed rooted to the bench, content that a draw would take us through.  Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

5. Bye bye Argentina, France, Portugal – France – 1 point from three games, Argentina failing to beat Sweden, Portugal losing to the USA and South Korea.  Bye Bye.  Was the World Cup a better competition for the likes of Japan, South Korea, USA and Senegal progressing?  You bet it was.

6. The Sene-gaul of it – It is fair to say that in the days before Youtube, and to some extent the internet, few people knew anything about Senegal.  But the world was forced to sit up and watch when Papa Boupa Diop headed home the winner against France, and then when Salif Diao waltzed through the Danish defence a few days later.  Shock runners up in the group stages, and thus eliminating France and Uruguay, they beat Sweden on the Golden Goal rule thanks to a Henri Camera brace, but were unlucky to lose to Turkey in the Quarter Finals to Turkey.  The good news – some of that talent ended up in the Premier League.  The bad news – it included El Hadj Diouf.

7. Well done Mr Moreno – The 18th June 2002 will go down in the history books as a black day for Italian football.  38,500 partisan home fans had crammed into the Daejeon World Cup stadium.  Christian Vieri put the Azzurri in the lead in the first half but Korea equalised with a couple of minutes to go.  Step forward Ecuadors referee, Byran Moreno.  He was the key man in extra time as he firstly disallowed a legitimate goal by Italy’s Tommasi, then sent off Francesco Totti for diving and finally allowed Ahn Jung-Hwan’s 117th minute Golden Goal winner.  Jung-Hwan was a player at Italian club Perugia, prompting their president to cancel his contract.

8. Lets us all lob Seaman – After a convincing win against Denmark in Round 2, England had to face Brazil in the Quarter Finals.  With the game kicking off at breakfast time, London’s pubs threw open their doors early and the offices were empty when Michael Owen put England ahead in the first half.  Unfortunately the team, featuring no lesser stars than Trevor Sinclair and Danny Mills conceded an equaliser in injury time of the first half. when Rivaldo scored after a mistake by the full back.

Five minutes later and a stupid free kick on the touchline gave Brazil the chance to send the big men forward from the back.  But Ronaldinho had other ideas and from a full forty yards he lobbed David Seaman for one of the biggest English goalkeeping gaffs of all time. After this Brazil cantered to victory, even allowing for Ronaldinho to set himself sent off and sent England home, and millions of workers in England straight to the bar.

9. Never mind Michael – The Germans laughed when Gazza was yellow carded in Turin in 1990 and thus missed the final.  So you can imagine the sympathy that we showed when Michael Ballack picked up a second yellow card of the tournament in the Germans 1-0 against the host nation in the semi-final.  He did score the winning goal though.  Some consolation.

10. Ronaldo’s revenge – Four years after the mysterious events in Paris had cost his country dear, Ronaldo crowned a wonderful tournament with both goals in the final against Germany.  Sure, Oliver Kahn gifted him the first when he spilt Rivaldo’s shot but his second goal twelve minutes later was sheer class.

So what a month it was….bankruptcy, a new job, a new continent, seven games in eight days and one of the most dramatic World Cup’s ever.  Surely 2006 in Germany could not be as good?  We will just have to wait and see.

twitter / theballisround

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