22 million South Koreans watched the Korea-Togo soccer match on TV and in the streets yesterday. That's almost half the population of the entire country, and close to the population of the entire country of Canada. Of those 22 million, over 2 million watched the game on giant outdoor screens installed by the government and various corporations.
Having grown up in Canada, I can't say that I'm excessively nationalistic. I tend to prescribe to a "we're all citizens of the world" belief system. Still, I can't help but be swayed just a little, by the excitement and fervor of the Korean soccer fans, the Red Devils. I'm sure you all remember the images from the 2002 World Cup hosted by Japan and Korea. The stadiums full of red shirted fans, screaming at the top of their lungs, as Korea made it into the final four for the first time in history, taking down soccer giants, Italy and Spain in the process.
After one of Korea's victories back then, I took a rare trip down to Koreatown at Bloor and Christie, and was shocked by what I saw. The streets were filled with amateur fireworks, thronged with people dancing, drinking and partying, Korean flags and hooligans climbing on top of cars. Most cars were not allowed to pass without the indignity of being bounced up and down by a bunch of overzealous fans! It was pretty outrageous.
I think it's interesting how sport has the capacity to create subcultures and open doors. There is a growing "square culture" in Korea, that didn't exist before the 2002 World Cup, when millions of fans gathered spontaneously in the Seoul Plaza and other outdoor areas to cheer their team on together. This "street cheering" as it is called in Korea, is now a common and accepted part of popular culture.
Yesterday, exceptions to curfew were made so that prisoners at jails and detention houses could watch the match. Monks practicing asceticism were allowed to watch the Togo match as well. Given that these monks usually confine themselves to meditation and are not allowed any contact with the media, this is quite amazing. Even citizens of the Hermit Kingdom - the secretive and isolated North Korea - received delayed broadcasts of the game from South Korea with the permission of their government.
What is it about sport that allows us to break down barriers like this? Is it the beauty of the game? or in the case of the Red Devils, extreme patriotism? What do you think?