At the weekend Jen and I went down to Busan for the Korean FA Cup Final. We’d had a bit of a choice to make as the first Korean Formula 1 Grand Prix was also taking place on the same day. In a way, I felt I should go and watch the motor racing. It’s a global event and with it being the first time that it had been staged in Korea, I suppose it’s a fairly historical occasion too.
Having said that, I went to Silverstone last year for the British Grand Prix and I wasn’t too impressed with it. Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time. I picked my son Tom up at a nearby railway station and then we spent the weekend camping about half an hours walk from the circuit. But it was the social side that I liked best. The race itself wasn’t particularly easy to follow live and I don’t think the weekend would have been any less enjoyable if we had just gone camping and watched the race on the telly.
The tents weren't too sturdy and the BBQ wouldn't light, but apart from that...
I think the main problem was that you don’t really get enough information when you are watching the race at the track. I was never really sure which car was leading and you miss most of the action by being limited to a single viewpoint. The cars are so loud that I needed to wear earplugs and that meant that I couldn’t hear any tannoy announcements or even have a conversation with Tom. The people in the know had hired little five-inch tellies so that they could stay up to-date with what was going on. I just thought that if you are going to watch it on a screen, you might as well choose a large one in a bar somewhere and avoid paying two hundred and fifty pounds for the privilege of being deafened.
That's Jensen Button. Probably. Although it could be his team mate.
So in the end we plumped for the football. There was a firework display in Busan on the Saturday night and that helped swing it too. It was probably a wise choice. Despite the tempting prospect early in the week of free tickets to the Grand Prix being dished out to foreigners, it seemed like a lot of people struggled to get into the circuit. I read that seats were just allocated on a first-come, first-served basis, which must be a little annoying if you were one of the early bookers who had shelled out a few hundred quid for a prime spot.
We set off for Busan on the Saturday morning on the KTX and less than three hours later we were there. We’d decided to try to stay somewhere near Gwangalli beach, so that we would be handy for the firework display that evening and so after a half hour taxi ride we wandered along the seafront looking for a room. The hotels in Busan seemed fairly dull compared to some of the others that I’ve seen over here. I’ve stayed at one which had four full size plastic horses above the door and another that had fake palm trees on the roof. There was nothing like that in Busan though, or if there was we didn’t see it.
The first hotel we called into had a notice on the wall confirming that it was full. It had a restaurant though and so we stayed for lunch and something called dak galbi. Jen speaks very good Korean and so it usually means that when I’m with her I know what I’m going to get on my plate before it arrives. When I’m by myself it’s much more of a lottery as to what I’ll get given to eat. That’s not unique to Korea, by the way. When I was working in Spain I was once given a saucer of almonds instead of the anticipated steak and chips and on another occasion the cod I thought I had ordered turned out to be a pig’s foot.
None of those problems this time though and the dak galbi was even better than normal as in addition to the usual chicken and cabbage in a spicy pepper sauce it also had prawns, mussels and bits of octopus in it. You cook it yourself in a big dish heated by a gas flame set into the table. It’s easy enough, all you have to do is move the stuff about now and then to stop it sticking to the pan. A bit like most things I eat apart from weetabix really.
This is a photo of dak galbi that I found on the internet.
We had a window seat in the restaurant and were able to watch the preparations for the fireworks which consisted mainly of someone filling as much of the narrow beach as possible with plastic chairs. Families were already staking their claims to spots on the pavements five hours before it started by putting down picnic blankets and making themselves at home. A group of monks wandered past our window at one point, some of them no more than young children. It seemed somewhat early in life to be making that sort of career choice, whilst a shaven head struck me as too much of a commitment if you just did a bit of monking on a weekend as an alternative to joining the scouts.
Anyway, after the dak galbi we gave up on the prospect of a room with a sea view and moved one street back from the beach. There were plenty of hotels to pick from there and we tried one where we could see people stood on a rooftop terrace. It didn’t have any palm trees or plastic horses up there but we thought that it might come in handy for watching the display later on.
The hotel with the roof top viewing point had a room for us but by Korean standards it wasn’t too impressive. It had a circular bed, but when you’ve stayed in rooms that boast a dance floor with flashing lights, an overhead remote-controlled skylight or a coin operated condom vending machine on the wall, a bed without corners doesn’t really strike me as much to write home about. It was rock hard too, possibly because most Koreans usually prefer to sleep on the floor. I doubt the floor would have been any firmer than that mattress.
A little later we headed back out for the fireworks. Our plan was to meet some friends of Jen somewhere. It was all a little vague and in the end they didn’t make it. They were stuck at a different beach and by now the traffic was heavy enough to make moving around a pain in the arse. We were fine though, as we’d bagged a table at a beachside bar. There was a set fee for a table as the bar sought to make the most of one of the last busy nights of the season. For a hundred and fifty thousand won (eighty quid!!) we got a plate with four burgers on it, chips and a bit of salad. We also got two four pint pitchers of beer, three bottles of soju and a couple of soft drinks. It was the same standard deal whether you were sat at the table alone or if there were half a dozen of you.
One pitcher down, one to go.
The burgers were rubbish. I think they came out of a tin. They reminded me of the ones I used to eat in Stockton High Street after a night out around town twenty-five years ago. The burgers in those days had so little meat in them that you could eat them without chewing. Quite handy I suppose if the evening had ended up with you having a few teeth knocked out.
Three and a half of the four burgers remained on the plate at the end of the night, although we made a decent effort with the chips and the beer. The fireworks were excellent and sitting outside a bar watching them was a whole lot more relaxing than being stuck in the crowd of people trying to find a place to stand on the beach or the road. I suppose we would probably have had a pretty good view from our hotel roof, but we’d have had to have sorted out our own beer and chips.
Quite a good finale.
After a night’s sleep that might as well have been spent on floor we woke up to Cup Final Morning. As you may have suspected it didn’t quite have the same sense of excitement that I remembered as a kid in the days when the whole morning was spent building up to the main event in the afternoon. I flicked through the television channels just in case there was a Korean version of It’s a Cup Final Knockout or Cup Final Mastermind, but if they have programmes like that over here I couldn’t find any of them.
We had a few hours to spare before the 4pm kick off and as it was raining we went along to the Busan Museum. The really old stuff like rocks made in to axeheads or chopping blocks was a bit dull, as were the slightly later bits of broken crockery, but I quite liked the more modern exhibits from the various Japanese occupations and the relatively recent Korean War.
After lunch we wandered around the nearby UN Cemetery. There was some event going on and the place had a few Korean veterans stood around and also a party of modern-day soldiers. Twenty two countries answered the UN call for military or medical assistance and most of them were represented in the cemetery. The Americans have a policy of repatriating their fallen and so had very few graves here despite having lost around forty thousand servicemen. In those days the British tended to bury people in the country where they died and so we were the largest contingent, with 885 of the 1,100 or so personnel who had died during the Korean War being buried within these grounds.
As you would expect, the cemetery was impeccably maintained and it was sobering to read the details on the headstones. Very often you would see a cluster of graves that all showed the same date of death. I wondered whether they died alongside each other. Some of them were still teenagers and possibly conscripts as it was at a time when we still had National Service.
With an hour to go to kick-off we left the cemetery and took at taxi to the Asiad Stadium. The traffic was fairly heavy and we arrived with about ten minutes to spare. There was a long queue at the entrance into the west stand and we still had tickets to buy before we could even join the line. In a stroke of luck we were offered tickets for free as we approached the ticket office by a couple of blokes who had a big wad of them to give away. We gratefully accepted two of them and ignoring the queue to our right, we turned left and fifty yards further along were able to walk straight through an entrance to the south stand.
Ten minutes before kick-off.
We were supposed to be meeting some Suwon supporters in that end of the stadium but one of them had suffered a bit of a mishap, falling three stories from an unguarded stairway and suffering serious multiple injuries. Thankfully he survived and is expected to make a full recovery. It’s incredible to think of the steps that people will take to avoid us.
The stadium was impressive. It was built for the Asian Games in 2002 and also hosted three World Cup matches that year. It’s too big, of course, for the attendances that Korean football matches get, even Cup Finals, so someone had come up with the clever idea of building temporary stands on the running track down one side of the pitch and behind one of the goals. Half a stadium within a stadium, if you like. It allowed the fans in those seats to get much closer to the action, although it did mean that the roof on the stadium offered them no protection from the elements. Whilst the temporary stands were just about full, there was plenty of space in the rest of the stadium and despite the attendance being announced as 31,000, I’d have estimated a less impressive 12,000 or so.
How clever is that?
Equally less impressive was the lack of beer on sale. I’d walked halfway around the entire concourse just before kickoff in search of a pint as visiting museums and cemeteries is thirsty work. Unfortunately I couldn’t find anywhere selling alcohol. Luckily I had an emergency stash of whisky that I had lugged up and down Jirisan a month earlier and had brought to Busan in case we had ended up watching the fireworks from the beach. I don’t really want to be carrying it around for the rest of my life, so I had a few nips of that instead.
Random photo of stuff happening.
I like watching cup finals. The games aren’t always classics but you know that the players will be up for it and its likely that tempers will fray a bit later on, particularly if one team is behind. I’ve seen the German and Spanish versions in the last couple of years and was at Wembley supporting the Boro against Chelsea in 97. We went behind after thirty seconds in that one, so we hadn’t even managed to sit down before our tempers frayed.
The Suwon fans around us were pretty good, keeping up the chanting for most of the game. They were rewarded with a goal midway through the first half, as Yeom Ki Hun scored from a well placed shot from outside of the box.
Suwon fans after the goal.
They celebrated the goal with a chorus of a song to the tune of Ob la di, ob la da. Despite it being something that sounds like McCartney had knocked up in about ten minutes, the lyrics were obviously a little difficult to remember for the Suwon fans and they had been replaced with the even simpler “Ohhh, ohhh, oh, ohhh, ohhh oh.“
Another random action shot.
At half time it was still 1-0 and we were treated to a girl band miming one of their songs on the pitch. They appeared to forget that the microphones were just for show and made the error of trying to use them for addressing the crowd after the song. Perhaps, to avoid any confusion, they should have been given hairbrushes to mine with instead. Fortunately someone ran on to the pitch from the sidelines with a real microphone for them and after being warned not to try to brush their hair with it, the budding popstars were able to thank the crowd for supporting their album sales and delaying the inevitable day when they would have to look for jobs in room salons.
The second half was quite scrappy with both teams getting stuck in a bit more and Suwon in particular taking any opportunity to timewaste by exaggerating their injuries. The players squared up to each other a couple of times but it never really boiled over in the way that I’d hoped it would.
Suwon fans unveil their surfer.
There weren’t a great deal of chances and despite it being a fairly even game, Suwon’s solitary goal turned out to be enough to claim the trophy. We got the usual presentation ceremony with paper fired into the air and the now obligatory rendition of We Are The Champions.
The win gave Suwon a place in the Champions League and we filed out before the lap of honour to catch our train back to Seoul. When I went into work the next day, no-one even knew that the Cup Final had taken place and the talk was all about the Grand Prix. The combination of crashes and cars sliding off the track in the rain seemed to have captured their imagination in a way that a domestic football game could never hope to. Next year I suspect a fair few of them will be heading down to the track and then wondering where to get hold of earplugs and little tellies.