If They Built It, She Promised to Come Weekly

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If They Built It, She Promised to Come Weekly

"She used to be a soccer star," Young Kwak-nyeong said, gesturing toward Park Hee-ok.

Ms. Park has developed her professional welcoming smile from five years of working as a flight attendant with Korean Air.

"It was just one game," she protested to Mr. Young, the World Cup Information Center director. Ms. Park played goalkeeper in a college match, Ehwa Womans University against Sookmyung Women's University, and even was a guest on soccer player Lee Seung-nyeon's TV program "Star Show."

Thirty years later, Ms. Park is no longer playing soccer, but talks about it nonstop. Ms. Park, 51, collects World Cup paraphernalia, from key holders to newspaper clippings to pins. Last year, when she heard that FIFA World Cup 2002 Korea Japan organizers needed volunteers, she hurried to sign up.

Ms. Park is now one of roughly 100 volunteers at the World Cup information center at the stadium in Sang-am-dong, Seoul. Each multilingual volunteer devotes one day a week to guiding visitors through the unfinished stadium.

"My friends thought I was wasting my time," said Ms. Park, who speaks Japanese and a smattering of English.

"But now that the World Cup is getting closer and closer, they're envious." She will be at the stadium for the World Cup.

After joining the staff in March 2000, Ms. Park now knows the stadium inside and out. She can quote the height of the first security rail by the field ?"2.5 meters, a bit too high for hooligans to jump," the type of grass on the soccer field ?Kentucky blue grass, and even the power of the scoreboard lights.

The most popular questions she fields are:

?How many seats?

Answer: 64,677.

?Is this Korea's only World Cup stadium?

It's the main stadium, the only one in Seoul. There will be nine others around the country.

?Why are the seats gray?

More distinguished.

?Is the stadium's roof fixed or can it be removed?

Fixed, to provide shade to 90 percent of the seats. A permanent opening on the roof cover provides six hours of sunlight to the grass.

She sees herself as an ambassador of Korea. "Japan is our co-host and foreigners are quick to think that Japanese manners are impeccable. I want our guests to leave feeling that Korean manners are just as impeccable."

As a volunteer, Ms. Park has met several visitors she thinks might be commercial spies. "They come in and take exact pictures of all our souvenirs," she said. "Then they go back to their country and make replicas." Her favorite visitors are the older Koreans who come once, then come again with friends and family. "We pay special attention to them," she said.

There are few places in the stadium she does not have access to.

"I have never been to the locker rooms," she said. "They're top secret, for security reasons." She has not visited the men's bathroom, she rarely ventures to the basement level and she has yet to step on the lush grass field.

The grass, grown in North Chungchong province, takes three months to fully root. Transplanted in mid-May, the grass is fragile. Only on rare occasions are people - tournament officials and some journalists - allowed to touch the grass.

Ms. Park held on to a railing, looked down at the empty stadium, and said, "I love this place." The noise of hammers and saws and workers walking on the roof faded as the occasional pigeon flew in and out of the stadium.

On Wednesday, Ms. Park put on a skirt and blouse, powdered her face and drove a Hyundai Sonata to the World Cup Stadium where she arrived at 8:30 a.m. There, she slipped on a green cotton vest that is her uniform, and got her professional smile ready for the 100 or so people she will meet by 6 p.m.

Most visitors reserve tours in advance, but booking is not necessary. Some organizations, like TownMax.com, also play host to tours.

Tours begin inside the information office, where there is a museum dedicated to the World Cup and to the history of the area surrounding the stadium, which is near a large island landfill.

Before 1970, orchids, trees and grass covered Nanji Island. The island and Sang-am-dong are being cleaned up and turned into five parks, including a nine-hole golf course.

Soccer balls used in past World Cup games sit on display inside the entrance. Tour guides get frequent requests to sell these soccer balls, but don't.

There is also a replica of the World Cup trophy. The weight and shape are identical. The original is gold, while the copy is gold plated.

Right by the exit to the information center, a pile of white hard hats rests on a table. Until two weeks ago, visitors to the stadium had to wear the hard hats when they left the information center and toured the actual stadium. Now that the stadium is closer to completion ?94 percent constructed with a target month of October ?visitors can walk outside without the hat. Construction began in 1998.

Ms. Park guides her guests from the information center to the stadium's seating area. On this tour, she has two Japanese guests in business suits. By the end of the tour, both men are smiling.


Getting there

Take subway line no. 6 to World Cup Stadium Exit. Parking is available.

Information Center Hours

9 a.m. to 6 p.m.


Korean, Japanese, English

What to bring

Photo identification if you are not with a group tour

Phone number


by Joe Yong-hee

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