By Byuri/Barry Eom (엄벼리)
Slowly, everyone stands up. Park Chu-Young, Korea’s one-top forward, sprints with the ball. At least 4 defenders on him, he dances past them, shoots, and it’s in the back of the net! I find myself screaming “GOOOOAAAAAAL!” with 30,000 spectators in front of the City Hall of Seoul; the capital of South Korea.
In 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup, South Korean National Soccer Team wrote themselves in the history books by becoming the first Asian team to go to the semi-finals of the World Cup tournament. During the tournament, every Korean citizen dressed in red color, which is the home color of the South Korea’s national soccer team. Together, they call themselves the “Red Devils” and cheers for Korea. If we could see how Korea looked from the outer space at that time, it would definitely have been a spectacular scene; a fiery red peninsula.
It was the summer of 2012. I had just moved into my aunt’s house in Seoul. It had been few days since I came here from Japan; we were planning to move to the United States in August. I was gloomy when I first came here because I had parted with my friends in Japan. However, Korea wouldn’t let me stay gloomy; my cousins were just too cheerful. If you saw their smile, you wouldn’t be able to stop yourself from having a giant smile across your face too. And of course, the 2012 London Olympics had started. At the time, I didn’t notice that the Olympics had even started due to my sadness but it was really hard trying stay off of what was happening in London. When I turn the TV on, there were athletes who dedicated their whole lives to the sport they practiced everyday competing with the top class athletes around the world, which was impossible to keep my eyes off of. And there was one competition I kept on waiting and waiting for, U-23 soccer. Because one of my most favorite sports, baseball, was no longer an Olympic event, all I cared about was soccer.
Korea’s first match: Mexico. While watching the soccer game I scream at the TV. The TV was taunting me; Korea was outplaying Mexico but missed numerous good chances. The game ended in a 0-0 draw, 2 hours of my precious time was wasted.
Korea later played against Switzerland which they won 2-1 and tied 0-0 to the underdogs Gabon. As expected, Korea reached the quarterfinals. But nothing is easy; Korea faced England, known as “Team Great Britain”, the competition favorites. The truth is, I thought Korea would lose. But when I woke up (I was at Korea then, so the time difference between Seoul and London was 9 hours) it turned out Korea had beaten Great Britain in the penalty kick shoot-outs after a hard-fought extra time 1-1 draw. Astounded like every other people, I thought Korea might take the gold medal back home. But no, in the semi-finals Brazil denied Korea’s journey to the finals by scoring 3 goals. However, Korea had a high chance of winning if the referee had not missed the 2 fouls in the penalty box. Also Korea would have had a higher chance of winning if their main goalkeeper was playing, not the substitution keeper due to the main goalkeeper’s injury during the Great Britain match. And like as if God, reading our minds, had chosen the fate of the 2012 London Olympics Soccer 3rd place matchup, Korea was to play the arch rivals; Japan.
Just 9 hours before the 3rd place match, my friend came over with his friend to my aunt’s house, and we decided to go to the park in front of Seoul’s City Hall where we heard at least 30,000 people would be there to watch the match on a jumbo screen. The kick-off time was 3:15am in Korea, so I was dizzy, when I woke up at 2:30am to go to the City Hall. When we got there, I couldn’t breathe. I was simply bewildered. I looked across the park; it was densely foggy due to the steam of the breath created by the countless people in this frigid weather. But I could see an ocean; red ocean filled with people wearing red shirts. In addition, as soon as I entered the red ocean, like as entering the very core of a volcano, I felt the burning heat. It was a red ocean but the people were on fire; they were anticipating victory. The spirit of the Red Devils of 2002 was still alive; it had been in our hearts, waiting for a game like this to come. I had also bought a Red Devils T-shirt at a stand before the breathtaking match started.
The place was crowded with “red people”, and from what I heard, most of the people that were here were waiting for the match to begin and was at the City Hall before 11pm, 4 hours before the match. As the national anthems began to play, we quickly searched for a spot to sit and as soon as we sat down, the game had started. The game started rough from the first moment the ball was kicked, strong tackles were seen in almost every 2 minutes. As I was watching the match, the smell of alcohol attacked me. A quantity of adults were drinking beer and the stench of unclear headed adults surrounded us. Also, we were jeering at the screen whenever our players or their players made a bad plays, or if the referees made a terrible call. Yellow cards were flying around as if the yellow card wanted to paint the green field to a yellow field. The referees in this tournament were terrible. And a lot of times, everybody would start singing the classic Red Devils song and few other famous songs, which made everyone more and more intensified. Everything here made us feel more alive; being the part of the Red Devils, being a Korean.
The game stayed unpredictable until a Japanese player’s glancing header missed the goal, just 2 feet from the far post. But about 15 minutes later, when a Korean defender kicked the ball up field, every spectator in the park, knowing that something was going to happen, slowly stood up. Park Chu-Young, Korea’s number 9 striker had the ball at his feet. He ran with the ball, with four defenders on him, faked a move, and shot. The moment when he shot the ball towards the goal, everyone’s heart had stopped as if the earth too had stopped, everyone stood solid like a rock. Then, GOAL! Everyone went wild, like a baby who just learned to say the word goal, we just kept screaming goal until our throat ached. Few minutes after the first goal was half-time. We bought some drinks but because of my sore throat from yelling and from the thrilling excitement, the drinks were tasteless; they had no taste, like air. But I did not care, as long as it kept myself hydrated enough to keep on yelling with the Red Devils.
The second half looked rather more settled than the first. The Korean midfielders had composure and were stringing passes across each other like spider weaving an elementary web. And 12 minutes after half-time, Korean skipper Koo Ja-Cheol received a long goal kick from the keeper. And with ease, volleyed the ball into the corner of the net. Again, 30,000 people suddenly became a Red Devil; everyone was celebrating as if they have never been happier in their life. There was another good chance where I thought Kim Bo-Kyung, a left midfielder, had scored and was roaring with the fans like a wild untamed animal until everyone realized that the Japanese goalkeeper made a fantastic save to tip the ball out of the goal which bounced off the upper right post. I was moved how the Japanese goalkeeper was still trying to save his team from a complete defeat.
As the seconds died out, Korean players on the bench, especially Park Chu-Young who was substituted, had a bright smile on his face. They knew that Korea had done it, won the match and gained the rights to get exempted from military which is mandatory for a Korean man from 18 to 30 has to attend for 2 years unless they receive special exceptions like in this case; receiving a medal from the Olympics. However, the head coach of Korea, who has brought and lead the team all the way here, did not show any sign of happiness. After 3 longest minutes of stoppage time in my life, the referee finally blew his whistle. It was over. The coach finally showed a “sunshine smiley face”. I looked around; everyone seemed to be without a doubt, happy too. I had a face brighter than the sun, and everone else did too, which made the whole park shine brighter than any part of the universe. Looking at other people smile made me even more delighted.
The game overall was a good game and I think Korea deserved the victory. Maybe it’s because I’m Korean or maybe it’s because I saw how Korean players looked more ambitious to win this match. It was also nice to see Korean players helping the Japanese players who have squatted down from their defeat and Japanese players getting up holding the hand of a Korean player. This was the soccer I knew, and this is what a Red Devil would do. I was satisfied with what both of the teams and players had done, showing sportsmanship after the match.
Thinking about this match still makes me feel excited. Who knew that Korea and Japan would meet in a 3rd place match in the world-competed tournament? Nothing is impossible. From that day I have the phrase “Impossible is Nothing” carved inside my heart, and I believe in it. And also, showing courtesy and sportsmanship to your opponent is part of the game too. Respecting the opponent; that is what I have learned. Finally, without doubt, this is one of the moments when you are very proud of being a Korea, like I am now.