Preview 28 – South Korea

1966. So evocative. The cheering crowds in a packed stadium, the intake of breath as the ball drops and then the roar of approval as the 18,000 at Ayresome Park celebrate Pak Doo-Ik’s solitary goal in the encounter between North Korea and Italy. What? Oh.

Fergie’s Noisy Neighbour jibe doesn’t even come close in the case of South Korea. While Manchester City may have the economic equivalent of nuclear weapons, causing a mass retrieval of protect and survive manuals for the range of lower league clubs in Lancashire, they don’t have a minefield separating them from Old Trafford. Just Ordsall, which may be worse. And yet it was “AGAIN 1966” from the South Koreans as they hosted Italy in the 2002 World Cup, when the rumblings of discontent generated by the succession of Kim Jong-un were in the future and diplomatic interests were represented by Jimmy Carter, rather than Dennis Rodman. Those last two things might be related.

What is related is Korean identity. Despite Government wrangling, a tectonic game of not-quite-war, Koreans recognise Koreans, share in their achievements past and, despite the ongoing political turbulence of the present, the ghost of the shell of the Hermit Kingdom encapsulates both countries. The Koreans support the Koreans, regardless of the intended separation of politics and ideology. After all, they’re Korean, too. So 1966 again it was, and a remarkable host tournament too, not least because of the fascinating pairing with Japan. Even more remarkable, given that South Korea hadn’t won a game in the five previous consecutive World Cup finals. I’m not going to talk about referees. I’m not.

More consistent in qualifying and having progressed further in the finals than certain other 1966-centric nations in the last twenty years, South Korean players have used the platform of 2002 to spread far and wide. This year, 17 of their 23 man-squad play outside of Korea, a sharp reverse from the 7 who plied their trade abroad, mostly in Japan, 12 years ago. A sign of the rise of Korean football, or a willingness to recruit individuals to exploit the huge potential market of what is inaccurately called the ‘Asian market’? Roy Race romanticism or rat race economics? This battered carcass of a refugee from Portsmouth’s freefall says the latter, the desperate, brief spark of belief and hope and joy which gets its moment once every four years says the former.

I suppose we’ve now reached the point we bring up the other cultural ticket-barrier touchpoint when discussing modern Korea. And in a way, it’s representative of our treatment of Korean football. Gangnam Style was a targeted satire of aspirational money culture within South Korea, lining up and picking off references in a lyrically sparse catchy K-pop jaunt. But he did a funny dance and used enough English in the chorus for it to be a spannered-on-Revolutions-cocktails singalong classic, and two billion Youtube views later his follow up singles will forever be stuck in a deep shadow alongside Jordi Cruyff, Nicky Summerbee and the recently jailed Edson.

As goes PSY, so goes Korean football? Amusing, briefly interesting but ultimately disposable. A one hit wonder, who’s still gamely working the circuit. Familiar enough to be recognisable but an obvious lesser form of our own vastly superior Western genre. Look at the size difference, bless them. Look at how happy they are when they score, it’s almost like they understand what it means. Plucky, and an emphasis on the last five letters. Patronising bollocks at best, new ways of employing imperial and race based stereotypes at worst.

They are drawn in Group H with Algeria and Belgium, two nations who are no stranger to division, and Russia for whom the same could be said, but for entirely different reasons. It’s not one of the most scrutinised groups, but will be worth a watch to see which team finds its voice. Don’t rule out the team from south of the 38th parallel.

Posted by Dutton Peabody

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