Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Red Devils

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?


Furtheron said...

Like you say Shellz it has some effect to break through barriers and unite people. England is awash with St. George's flags at the moment. At 5 o'clock tonight I guarantee the streets will be quiet - my wife plans to go shopping (not a footy fan).

Also a friend was talking to me yesterday saying about going to the pub to watch the game surrounded by loads of people they don't know etc. "...because the atmosphere is just so great at times like this...."

Shame that once we are knocked out - sorry must remain optimistic - once we win all that "we are one" spirit will disappear in a few weeks. I remember the same when we won the Rugby world cup in 2003 and the cricket Ashes last year. United for a time.

Maybe that is part of it - people can't sustain the energy to be united like that continuously so it can only be sporadic when events like this come along?

Only TV I watched in treatment in 2004 was the England games in Euro 2004.....

Sally said...

I am not sure; I've wondered about this, too. One of my friends flew to Europe for the World Cup, and his description of his experiences hanging out with the other U.S. fans sounded positively like religious fervor. Is that good? Does it make us too nationalistic? Does it divert our attention from other stuff that we should focus on, instead?

Sometimes I feel like if everyone in my state, Georgia, who's a rabid University of Georgia fan, put their heads together to focus that energy on something like hunger or homelessness ... well, that would be powerful, indeed.

On the other hand, it's nice to have diversions from the daily grind. And certainly, sports can be a transcendent experience for some people. So ... yeah. I don't know.

EM said...

Coming from a non-sports fanatic, it seems that when the World Cup hype grabs a hold of you, you're brought back to simpler times. You become a part of "something". You feel at one with strangers, and for once it doesn't matter that you don't know these people in the bar with you or on the street with you...if you're wearing the same colors, you have a common bond and you can immediately identify with each other - an instant brotherhood. Politics, environmental issues, gas prices, job woes and money problems all fall away for that period of time, and all you need to focus on is a simple "win or lose". And the emotions are also pure - Joy or Disappointment. And even in disappointment, the sheer elation of the winning team still touches you.

Sally's statement really makes you wonder...if the world were to place the same amount of focus and energy behind a worthwhile cause, one could only begin to imagine the results...