[Seoul Lounge] 2002 World Cup: A turning point

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[Seoul Lounge] 2002 World Cup: A turning point

Normally in this column, I like to criticize. I don’t seek to do this “as a foreigner” - that often-used expression employed by people keen to hear what the non-Korean dislikes about Korea - but just as a human being, who intends on living here a long time, and who wants to be involved in things. I hope the reader can believe that it isn’t done out of negativity or disrespect for Korea either. Criticism is good for democracy, and is also more interesting to read: A journalist who always wrote, “everything good, nothing to worry about,” wouldn’t have a job for very long.

Today though, I’m writing with a big smile on my face. I had thought about indulging in whining about gambling monks and dodgy, big-money megachurch pastors, but then I realized something: This coming week will see the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Cup.

That makes it 10 years since I fell in love with Korea. In May 2002, I knew absolutely nothing about this country, but just one month later, I had made up my mind that I wanted to live here. I arrived as a tourist, invited by a Korean friend from university, and left almost a religious convert. I never felt such a sense of warmth, possibility and pure fun as I did in those few too-short weeks. To some extent, I have been trying to regain that feeling ever since.

Naturally then, I have an extreme bias toward viewing the 2002 World Cup as an important historical event. But it genuinely was. Outside of Asia, Korea had always been known for certain hardships: The tragedy of war and division; the old isolationist “hermit kingdom” label; and latterly, its “economic miracle” and the subsequent financial crisis of 1997-98. The World Cup was the first time the world really got to see Korea’s emotional, human side.

Older people I talk to often mention the 1988 Olympics as Korea’s graduation party. But I don’t think Korea had quite arrived on the world scene by that point. The Olympic Games are more of a top-down event: They appeal greatly to politicians seeking to announce their country’s image on the world stage, as was the case at both Seoul 1988 and Beijing 2008. Everyone watches them, but they don’t excite us quite like the World Cup does.

Despite the ugliness of FIFA as an organization, the World Cup is truly the people’s tournament. Millions don’t pack themselves into City Hall to watch the men’s 100m final, and tourists don’t usually arrive in mass groups to cheer on their country’s relay swimming team. I can also confirm that the average British person’s response to London 2012 is a big yawn; it would be a different story if we were hosting the World Cup.

Seoul 1988 didn’t really change people’s perception of Korea, other than to make them aware that it was a growing economy. But the World Cup did. The historic event of 2002 gave Korea a red-painted, joyful and human face. I think that in some way it was the turning point at which this country started to become fashionable and interesting to outsiders.

From discussions with friends, I also believe it was the point at which Korean people were able to collectively recognize that dealings with foreigners do not necessarily have to be confrontational. This country obviously has a history of painful experiences with the outside world, and one that is etched into the national consciousness. The year 2002, though, gave so many opportunities for friendly exchange between Koreans and non-Koreans. And the fact that Hong Myung-bo and the rest - not to mention Guus Hiddink - did so well also showed people that this country can take on the world in a positive fashion, with brilliant results.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Hong last year, as part of a book I am writing. Usually when I meet someone well-known in Korea, my friends will offer mixed opinions about them - or worse in the case of a politician. But with Hong, faces instantly brightened. Just the mention of his name seems to bring up memories of that time: Penalties against Spain or the comprehensive victory against Poland. Having seen those moments with my own eyes, I knew exactly what they were thinking.

Please forgive me for writing such a plain column, and one full of the word ‘I.’ But I just want to express how lucky I feel to have had my life changed in June 2002, and to have been here during such a historic yet insanely entertaining time. I found a sense of connection to others, a feeling of unity and of something greater than myself in this strange country far from home, exactly 10 years ago.

*The author is the Seoul correspondent for The Economist.

by Daniel Tudor

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