Spain has two simple goals: Beat Korea, win the World Cup
He also loves soccer and predicts the future, at least in regard to the next World Cup.
“At school in Spain, everyone plays soccer,” Mr. Colome said in an interview with the JoongAng Daily. “We used books as goal posts on streets, with traffic not as crazy then. Now, I play with my grandchildren.”
As for the Spanish soccer team, this is the year, Mr. Colome said, that the team gets revenge on Korea for beating them in 2002, and goes on to win the whole thing.
“The feeling in Spain is that the German World Cup should be the turning point,” Mr. Colome said.
The Spanish national soccer team, which is entering its eighth consecutive World Cup tournament, is one of those maddeningly talented units that have not had much success on the sport’s biggest stage. The Spaniards’ best World Cup showing ever was a semifinal berth in 1950.
“Individually, we have very good players,” Mr. Colome said. “But when they meet for national teams, there hasn’t been enough cohesion and unity to field good squads.”
However, Mr. Colome said this year should be different.
“Our new coach [Luis Aragones] has the team competing at a higher level,” Mr. Colome said. “It seems that the team’s recent success has created a sense of confidence [among fans] not seen in the past.”
Spain drew Ukraine, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia as its opening round opponents in Group H, prompting Mr. Colome to call the draw “lucky.”
“I am not downgrading the quality of the rest of the teams because they are respectable teams,” he said. “But based on our history, Spain should have no problem in the first round.”
Many observers felt that Spain had an excellent team four years ago, but Korea beat Spain in the quarterfinals here on penalties after neither team scored through regulation and overtime.
Mr. Colome. who attended the match in Gwangju, South Jeolla province, called the loss “a shame” and quipped that the Spanish fans blamed only the referees in the game, not the Korean players, for the defeat. He added the loss gave Spain a valuable lesson in humility.
“Once Spain lost, we realized that soccer was no longer Euro-centric,” he said. “It was interesting to see how that perception changed after we lost to Korea.”
Lessons or not, Mr. Colome said, laughing, “We will win next time” and added he would like to see Spain have a shot at revenge against Korea in Germany.
While the soccer teams from the two nations battle on the pitch, the countries themselves will be working on improving their bilateral relations off it.
Though the envoy called the current state of the bilateral relations “very good,” he said there is some imbalance in bilateral trade that needs to be fixed.
The Spanish government “is trying to convince Spanish businessmen and investors to go to Korea because consumers here are very open to new products,” Mr. Colome said. “We can see that with popularity of Spanish wine and olive oil.”
Still, Korea as a trading partner isn’t perfect.
“We have a problem that Korea is very protective and certain markets are closed,” the ambassador said. “So we try to convince Korean authorities that they have to open more if they want to be global.”
Mr. Colome said he is optimistic because things are changing in Korea, with markets gradually opening up.
“It’s a matter of selling [Korea] to the Spanish business community,” he said. “And for that, we will probably have a state visit by President Roh Moo-hyun next year, and I am sure that will help a lot.”
What may also help the bilateral relations, Mr. Colome added, is the fact that Spain and Korea are two very similar countries.
“We share values in the international community, and we believe in multilateralism,” the envoy said. “We’re both very passionate people, and we try to solve problems and help developing countries.”
Mr. Colome pointed out there are other connections. Right after Seoul hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics, the Spanish town of Barcelona was the next host of the Olympics four years later. Korean runner Hwang Young-jo won the gold medal in the marathon in the 1992 Games, a feat Mr. Colome said brought many fans to their feet to chant “Corea, Corea!” Today, a small statue of Hwang stands in front of the Montjuic Olympic Stadium in Barcelona.
The sporting connection between the two countries reaches beyond athletic success and sporting events. Mr. Colome was in Madrid just two weeks ago, and he witnessed firsthand the buildup to the World Cup similar to what is taking place here.
“In Madrid, there are World Cup t-shirts, caps [and other souvenirs] everywhere,” he said. “It’s the World Cup fiesta already.”
Uniforms of both Korean and Spanish national teams feature the color red, and Mr. Colome said during the World Cup, the streets of Spain will be a sea of red, much the way Korean streets will be next month.
“People will gather on streets, shouting, dancing and drinking,” he said. “The climate will be very good during the summer months, and the ambience will be festive.”
So, Mr. Ambassador, with all the cheering behind Spain, is your country going to win that elusive first World Cup title this year?
by Yoo Jee-ho