Every four years, 32 national football teams clash for the World Cup trophy, the top honor in the sport, sparking a worldwide fever. And the time has come again with the Brazil World Cup 2014 kicking off on Friday.
Koreans have been no exception to the craze, whether Korea qualifies for the championship or not. Every time Korea advances to the 32-team contest, Koreans have turned their eyes to football, rooting for their team ardently.
However, the World Cup craze doesn’t seem to last long in Korea.
“There’s a long way to go before the Korean football culture is as mature as Europeans.’ Koreans only get drawn to football once every four years when the big show is held,” Bahn Woo-roung, head of the Red Devils, the nation’s largest football fan club, told the Korea Herald before flying to Brazil.
When the football maniac went to France to cheer for the Korean national team during the 1998 World Cup, he awakened to the joy of group cheering and realized that Europeans’ ardent and persistent love for football came from “having fun.”
“It was amazing to see European fans come together as one to root for their favorite teams,” said the 42-year-old, who works as an asset manager.
Bahn Woo-roung, head of the Red Devils, the nation’s largest football fan club, speaks in a recent interview in Seoul. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
The day Korea played against the Netherlands, he saw waves of orange inside and outside the stadium. Pubs, restaurants and streets were filled with people in orange costumes waving Dutch flags.
“For Europeans, winning or losing did not seem to matter. What mattered was football itself. They enjoyed every moment. I think the long-lasting passion helped European football thrive even after the World Cup ended.”
On his return to Korea, Bahn decided to spread the cheering culture of football nationwide in the hope that the joy of collective cheering could lead to continuous support for and development of the sport at home.
“When cheering together, we laugh and cry together for our team. I can never forget that moment and that’s why I keep coming back to the field.”
It only took four years for him to see if his dream could come true. Korean soccer’s golden days
During the 2002 World Cup, cohosted by South Korea and Japan, the whole country was swept by a festive mood, led by the Red Devils. Cheering crowds flooded streets, parks and public squares in their signature red shirts.
As one person led off with a chant of “Daehanminguk (Republic of Korea),” the rest followed with five rhythmical claps, and screamed their heads off in joy, dancing and singing under the slogan “Be the Reds.”
South Korea made it to the semi-finals on its home turf.
After the 2002 World Cup, expectations for Korean football ran high. Bahn expected the nationwide enthusiasm for the World Cup to last for decades and allow it to broaden its fan base. However, it lost steam rather quickly.
“The heated-up interest in soccer vanished right after the 2002 World Cup ended. The interest did not last long enough to boost the local league,” he said.
Korea’s domestic football league, dubbed the K-League, has suffered from low public interest. The World Cup fever was not transferred to the K-League. Attendance per match stands at 5,000 on average, in stark contrast to baseball games, which are often sold out. Limited media coverage of K-League matches also points to the lack of public interest in the sport.
Bahn cites the “result-obsessed” Korean culture as the cause behind the lukewarm popularity of soccer.
“Whether Korea qualifies for the World Cup or not is everything about football for Koreans. I fear that someday Koreans will forsake football if the Korean team fails to reach the tournament,” he said.
This year, Bahn and thousands of Red Devils members seek to rekindle interest in football as well as in the World Cup by cheering harder than ever.
A total of 120 Red Devils will fly from Korea to Brazil and hundreds of their compatriots residing in Brazil will join them for every match.
“We might be outnumbered, but we have passion and our voices are louder than any others,” Bahn said.
At home, however, Koreans are hesitant to get in a festive mood in the wake of the recent Sewol ferry sinking that left more than 300 dead or missing.
Even the Red Devil’s slogan, “Enjoy it, Reds,” triggered controversy over whether it is appropriate to use the word “Enjoy” when the whole nation is still grieving over the maritime accident.
Bahn agrees that the World Cup should not distract the nation too quickly from the tragic incident. The Red Devils are mulling over how to lead street cheering and how to make it not too loud.
They offered a silent tribute for 16 minutes to mourn the 16 victims still missing at the beginning of the warm-up match against Tunisia on May 30.
“The tragedy that took many lives shouldn’t be forgotten. But we cannot remain sad forever,” he said.
The Red Devils, therefore, will play its part ― uplifting Koreans from despair while cheering on Korea.
Specific plans for street cheering are yet to be decided. Its usual cheering site, the grassy square in front of City Hall in Seoul, is serving as a memorial altar for the victims of the Sewol.
Timing is also a problem. Most of the matches are held in the early hours in Korean time. Street cheering would disturb commuters during rush hour.
One way or another, cheering for Korea in the Cup is certain to refresh the nation.
“Through cheering, I hope Koreans can regain confidence, find joy and, in turn, overcome the agony,” Bhan said.
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org