Seoul FC v Jeonbuk Motors– 3pm, Sunday 14th March 2010

My second weekend in Seoul meant my first K-League match. K for Korean I imagine if anyone was wondering. Or maybe not, perhaps it’s sponsored by Kwick E Mart or someone. There are a lot of convenience stores in Korea, so it’s possible. The matches here seem to be spread over the full weekend as they are pretty much everywhere these days, with a game or two on Friday night and the others split between Saturday and Sunday. My local team, Seoul F.C, had a game at 3pm on the Sunday afternoon against Lee Dong Gook’s Jeonbuk Motors. The stadium is a fair distance from the city centre, but with a subway station actually called World Cup Stadium, I wasn’t too worried about finding it.

 I’d actually passed through that subway station the previous day on the way to the hills on the Northern edge of town. I’ve always liked doing a bit of hiking and thought that being out here shouldn’t be any reason to have to miss out. I met up with a group of mainly Americans at a subway station and ten minutes later we were at the bottom of a hill in the Bukhansan National Park.

 Part of the attraction of getting out into the hills in the UK is the remoteness, the solitude, the chance to get away from the towns and the crowds. Here though, it couldn’t have been more different. The paths were not only extremely well defined, but they were generally fenced in to stop people straying from the intended route. On sections where it got a bit steep, metal cable replaced the fencing, sometimes on sheer sections iron railings were provided to haul yourself up with. Occasionally a knotted rope would be handily placed to help with steep descents. The hardest aspect to get used to though was the number of people. Even though this was apparently very early in the Korean hiking season, the paths were packed with hikers of all ages. Quite often, on a steep section or on a path where the ice hadn’t quite melted, there would be a queue of people patiently waiting their turn to move forward. On sections where the path got a bit wider, groups of hikers would attempt to overtake slower walkers in front of them and a bottleneck would form as the path narrowed again.

The solitude of the mountains

 We got up four separate peaks in the day as we walked from Dokbawi to Munsubung and each one had hundreds of people on the top of them, most of whom had brought elaborate picnics, often with chairs and blankets. I’ve been on some of the more popular Lake District routes in the summer so I know what a crowded peak can be like, but this was something completely different. One of the walkers I was with told me that as the season went on it got so much busier and at its most congested you could barely see any rock for people. I had a good day out, the views over Seoul were fantastic and it was interesting to see the type of terrain in those hills, but it wasn’t my idea of a day out hiking. Still, it’s as near as I’m going to get out here I suspect, so I’m sure I’ll be joining the queues again soon.

 There were a few polite queues at the subway on the way to the match too, which I found equally unusual. The subway all seems very modern, it’s a bit like that new line in London where the tracks are behind glass. I like that, one of the things in life that makes me twitchy is waiting for a tube train in London at those stations that don’t seem to have changed since the days when Jack the Ripper had an Oyster Card. I tend to stand with my back to the wall to try and discourage those frustrated with life in the Capital from shoving me in front of an oncoming train. I feel a lot more comfortable in the modern stations where the worst they can do when the pace of life down there becomes too much is toss random Northerners against the glass barrier rather than onto the track.

 In Seoul, there are markings on the floor in front of each of the doors in the glass barrier where the people waiting for the train queue up. I’d always thought Britain was a place that was big on queuing but this certainly beats the sort of scrum that we tend to have on our underground. It beats us for price too, a single journey worked out at about 70p. I’m sure I paid four quid for the opportunity to dice with death last time I was in London.

 As the train made its way towards the World Cup Stadium I was entertained by a bloke going from carriage to carriage selling some sort of implement for unblocking sinks. He had brought a variety of plumbing with him and was demonstrating how this device would remove the most stubborn blockage in a hundred and one different ways. I have to say I was pretty impressed. But for all that I think he had the wrong crowd. How many people on their way to the match are going to make that sort of impulse buy? If he had been selling them after the game and if you were in a generous mood after seeing your team win then I suppose it’s something that you might buy to take back home with you as a treat for the wife, but honestly, who would want to lug it around with them all afternoon at the match?

 A little further on, an old lady sat down next to me. Her husband, who looked about ninety, was stood next to her. I got up and offered him my seat. He politely declined. I insisted and he declined just as politely a second time. This was getting a bit embarrassing now, with everyone watching. Again, I was unsure of the etiquette, do people offer their seats to the elderly in Korea? Maybe it is seen as an insult. Perhaps he felt I needed the seat more than he did. I offered one more time and with another big grin he refused. I did think about grabbing him by the lapels and manhandling him into the seat, but I had a nagging thought at the back of my mind that he may have been a retired ninja or something and he might politely extract my eyeballs from my skull with the handy sink plunger and, equally politely, replace them with my testicles. One hundred and two uses for it then. Perhaps that might clinch a sale or two. I reckoned that the crowd on the train had already had enough entertainment with the kitchen sink unblocker for one day though and I didn’t want to amuse them any more than necessary by having a bloke twice my age and half my size demonstrate his plumbing prowess on me. So I sheepishly sat back down to big smiles all around. Fortunately the next stop was the football stadium so I was able to get off pretty sharpish.

 The stadium was built for the 2002 World Cup, which makes sense really, building it for the following one in Germany would have been a bit of a balls up, and it was an impressive sight. I walked quite a long way around it as I often do and passed a swimming baths and a large supermarket built into the ground level of the stadium. Near the main walkway from the car parks were a number of stalls, some selling food, others replica shirts and one at which people could sign up for season tickets. I didn’t manage to work out how much they cost for the fourteen home games in the season, but there was a decent crowd of people buying them.

 My plan whilst I’m in Korea is to get around as many of the clubs as possible rather than revisiting the same stadium, so despite the potential savings a season ticket was of no use to me and I made my way up the steps to the ticket office. It was fortunate that I’d arrived early as there was a queue that snaked along the concourse for about a hundred yards. It wasn’t quite of the proportions of when we queued for the chance to buy Wembley tickets twenty years ago and the queues seemed to encompass most of Middlesbrough, but it certainly beat anything that I’d encountered on the hills the previous day.

It didn't quite reach Linthorpe Road

 The queue moved quickly though and I was soon at one of the eight ticket windows. I had a choice of paying 20,000 won (about twelve quid) for the West stand, 12000 won for the East and South or 8000 for North. I guessed that West and East would be the stands along the sides of the pitch and handed over my 12000 won for a ticket in the East stand. Fortunately the East stand had signs up identifying it and I joined a queue for one of the entrances. A steward, noticing the ticket in my hand, re-directed me to a different queue as the one I’d joined was exclusively for season ticket holders. Ticket scanned, I was soon into the ground and having a look around. There didn’t seem to be any seating details on my ticket, or if there was, I couldn’t read them and so I just sat wherever I fancied. The free seating surprised me a bit as I’d been to the cinema the previous week and was given a ticket for a specific seat. If allocating seats was the norm at the pictures it seemed strange not to do it for a football match. Incidentally at the cinema, I was the third person to go in and my seat was right next to the only other two people in there, a young couple sat towards the back. I was tempted to tell them to behave themselves as I sat down but thought better of it. I suspect they were equally tempted to tell me to f**k off and sit somewhere else, but they must have thought better of it too.

 The back row of the lower tier of the stadium was designed to accommodate pushchairs and quite a few people had taken advantage of this, turning up with sleeping toddlers. Some of the pushchairs were even loaded up with shopping from the in-stadium supermarket. Coming from a country that rarely seems to make adequate provision for disabled supporters, never mind people with babies and shopping, the arrangements were very impressive.

 I was right about the East Stand being down the side and it gave me the same view for 12,000 won that the West would have given me for 20,000. Jeonbuk had a few hundred supporters behind the goal in the South Stand, whilst the Seoul fans that looked likely to be making the noise were in the North Stand.

 We had a few fireworks in the build up to the game and a girl band called T-ara mimed a couple of numbers as well. They seemed quite popular, a Korean version of Girl’s Aloud or something by the sound of them. I thought I’d occupy myself by trying to work out which one was meant to be modeled upon which Girl’s Aloud band member, but as I’m not actually much more familiar with Girl’s Aloud than I am with their Korean counterparts T-ara, I got stuck after ‘Geordie Racist’ so had to give it up. Never mind though, it was time for the teams to come out. At my club, Middlesbrough, we have Pigbag as the run out song; or rather the run off after the handshaking thing song, as everyone gets the same tune to enter the pitch to in England these days. For those fans at Middlesbrough whose heart has ever sunk at the “Der Der Der Der” of Pigbag, count yourself lucky. The tune that Seoul has somehow appropriated is “If You’re Happy And You Know It, Clap Your Hands”. And they must be, because they did, bless them.

 The game kicked off to another volley of fireworks, which took me a bit by surprise. Seoul were wearing red and black stripes, Jeonbuk a sort of luminous green. Both teams were well supported by the fans behind each goal who stood and chanted all game. They had plenty of banners, even a flare, which I suspect, given the care with which the Koreans were disposing of their rubbish, was carefully extinguished and dropped into a bin labeled as being especially for incendiary devices.

 There were a couple of non Korean players, Dejan Damjanovich and Adilson for Seoul, who stood out pretty much because they weren’t Koreans. Lee Dong Gook was recognizable to me putting himself about up front for Jeonbuk. Halfway through the first half it started to rain and a lot of people in the lower tiers migrated to the upper tiers which, whilst still not totally dry, offered a little bit more protection than those seats closer to the pitch.

 At half time it was goalless and most people around me were eating from little cardboard boxes of sushi or bags of dried squid. I don’t know what Roy Keane would have to say about that. Into the second half and the attendance in the 65,000 capacity stadium was announced as 38,641. I would never have estimated that many people being there. It only looked about a third full at most to me. Perhaps a lot of those pushchairs held twins.

 With three minutes remaining Lee Dong Gook, who had had a pretty good game leading the line for Jeonbuk despite never looking like scoring, won a header which led to a Jeonbuk goal. The home crowd took it pretty stoically, although a fair few carefully collected their sushi packaging and made their way out. Jeonbuk had a player sent off for something off the ball in injury time but held on for a 1-0 victory and with seven points from three games moved to the top of the league. Before leaving the pitch the players all lined up for that organized handshaking thing that they do before kickoff and then the Seoul players made a point of walking to each touchline, lining up and bowing together to the fans. I can’t see that catching on in Middlesbrough after a defeat. The standard of football didn’t seem a whole lot different from what I’d been watching in the Championship with the Boro this season, no real outstanding players, plenty of mistakes, but with no-one seeming capable of punishing them.

 I decided to avoid the crowd at the subway on the way out and had a look around a market near to the ground. In addition to the stalls selling vegetables and filleted fish, there were a lot of live fish in tanks. It looked as if a few of the Koreans were just killing time too, some with kids treating it a bit like a trip at the zoo. I remember doing a similar thing with my Dad on a Saturday morning at Stockton market as a kid. Whilst my Mam did the shopping, we would always go and have a look at the pet stall and then call into the indoor market under the town Hall to see the dead rabbits hanging from the hooks. Whilst it might not have been Flamingo Land, it was better than trailing around the other stalls with my Mam whilst she looked in vain for one selling something that could unlock a sink in a hundred and one different ways.

 Next week it’s a trip down south on the Korean version of the ‘bullet train’ to see a bullfighting festival, yes really, and then bottom of the table Daegu taking on Ulsan.

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