My next match meant an early morning start, not so much because it was at Daegu, a city about one hundred and fifty miles South-East of Seoul, but more because I was trying to squeeze in a visit to a bullfighting festival at nearby Cheongdo before the game. I’d read about the annual festival in a free magazine that I’d picked up in a hotel and as it seemed to be the only bullfighting festival in Korea I thought it would be a shame not to go and see it.
I was up before dawn and out of my apartment just after 6am. I love that time of day when most people are still in bed. When I was a kid I briefly had a paper round and being up and about before everyone else was the thing that I enjoyed the most. Although getting to check out the Page 3 girl every morning ran it a fairly close second.
My train was leaving from Seoul Station at 7am and I had to negotiate eleven stops on the subway, including a change of line so I didn’t have a lot of time to spare. I got there with the station clock showing 6.52am and fortunately there wasn’t a queue at the ticket counter. Unfortunately I asked for a ticket to Cheongdu rather than Cheongdo which the girl behind the counter issued very efficiently. Once I’d realized my mistake she just as efficiently cancelled my ticket, refunded my money and gave me the correct one. It cost me 59,000 won (about thirty five quid) for a seat in First Class on the KTX fast service to Daegu followed by a further twenty five minutes journey on a local train to Cheongdo where the bullfighting festival was taking place. I could have got there for about two thirds of the price by going Standard Class or even for about half the price if I’d taken a slower train instead, but I fancied sitting in the posh bit and I didn’t really have the time to dawdle along on a train that stopped somewhere every twenty minutes.
By the time my ticket misunderstanding had been resolved it was 6.56 and I had to move pretty sharpish to get to the train. It was very smart in First Class with large airline style seats. There were video screens giving you information and announcing the next stops. Nobody checked my ticket, but what they did do was to walk through the carriage, pausing to bow upon entering and exiting, and check that only the seats that were supposed to be occupied were. I imagine that if they found someone in a seat that was meant to be empty, they could check the ticket of the occupant and move him on to his correct seat. The one hundred and fifty miles to Daegu took an hour and forty minutes, which I reckon equates to an average of about ninety miles an hour. It didn’t strike me as being much different to the sort of speed that the trains from Darlington to London do.
After a short wait at Daegu I got to Cheongdo at 9.20am. The bullfighting festival was a little out of town and I shared a taxi with a couple of Russian lads, Roman and Ivan, who had been in Korea for a few years. They were both very friendly, Roman seemed especially pleased to have an Englishman to practice his vocabulary on and he wanted my opinion on a variety of aspects of life in the UK ranging from which brand of camera was the most popular to the cost of divorcing a wife. He regarded the cameras as being better value than the wives and told me that he worked in a bakery in Daegu. He liked his job.
“Good money, clean money, not dirty money. You understand?”
We got to the stadium with about twenty minutes to spare and Roman, flush with clean money, bought us some tickets from a bloke outside for half face value, 2000 won (about £1.20) instead of 4000. It was the fourth and final day of the bullfighting festival where 132 bulls would fight it out to see which of them was the strongest. I had seen some photos of previous festivals which looked to have taken place around a makeshift outdoor ring, a bit like those photos of prizefights from a hundred or so years ago. Now though, it all happened inside a new purpose built arena, similar to the Spanish rings, but with a complete roof on it.
We wandered around the outside looking at the stalls; Ivan pondered whether or not to buy a brass crocodile but settled for two small bells instead. A lot of the stalls sold food, chestnuts, chicken on a stick and pans of bugs, more like maggots or grubs really. A bit of investigation and it turns out that they are Silkworm pupa. They didn’t smell too good and I hadn’t been drinking so easily resisted the admittedly small temptation to try them.
At ten o’clock we took our seats for the bullfighting. Each contest was between two bulls who were led into the ring by what I assumed were their owners. Although the bulls were of a similar size to those that take on the matadors in Spain they were noticeably tamer, or certainly more comfortable around humans. The Spanish bulls rarely see humans their entire lives and will attack them on sight. These bulls were led around the ring by a rope through their noses as if they were pugs being taken out for an evening paper. Not that you would have much success trying to thread anything through the nose of a pug, but hopefully you get my drift.
On the signal of the judge the bulls would be brought together and they would clash, generally putting their foreheads together and trying to push the other one backwards like kids in the playground or Premiership footballers. Occasionally, one would try and get his horns underneath the others head, or would pull back and try and stick the nut on his opponent. Like most playground fights though, it was mainly pushing and not much else. After a while one of the bulls would decide he had had enough and turn and leg it to the amusement of the crowd and the dismay of its owner. This would mean that the bout was over and he had lost. There was a table full of trophies though so it would appear that none of them had to go home empty handed, a bit like with amateur boxing or those marching jazz bands. The contests were more like Sumo than anything. The first three or four bouts were over pretty quickly but the last one that I saw went on for about forty minutes, by which time both bulls seemed tired and bored and looked to have fairly badly chaffed foreheads. Mind you, I suppose that compares quite favourably with the sort of condition they would have been in after a few minutes in the ring at Madrid. When one of them finally realized that all he had to do to go home was to stop pushing and ask for his party bag, it was all over. All over for me too, I’d seen enough after a couple of hours and it was time for me to head off to the match; another few hours of pushing wouldn’t have added to the experience. I said my goodbyes to Roman and Ivan, got a taxi outside and made my way back to Cheongdo station in the company of a taxi driver who must have just dropped off a fare from quite a distance away as he had little idea of where Cheongdo was, never mind its station. I managed to direct him towards the town as it became apparent just how fortunate it was that I’d got there when I did. The tailback of cars containing people arriving was starting to resemble those at Silverstone or Glastonbury. People were abandoning their vehicles three miles down the road and walking the remainder of the way to the stadium. After a tour of the town we found the station and I made the twenty five minute journey back to the Daegu. We passed the bullfighting stadium on the train and it elicited coos of amazement from the old women in the carriage. They couldn’t have been more impressed if someone had produced a talking dog and it had read the newspaper to them.
Once I got back to Daegu I had to find the stadium. It was another of those grounds built for the 2002 world cup and with a 66,000 capacity. I wondered how full it would be with Daegu bottom of the league after three defeats in their first three games. I couldn’t see a World Cup stadium mentioned on the subway map so asked at the information office. The bloke was very helpful and circled all the relevant stops on a map for me. I went to buy a ticket at the automated machine and a few minutes later he came running out after me.
“Are you going to the match against Ulsan?” He managed to get across to me with a fair degree of difficulty.
I replied that I was.
“Well. You don’t want the World Cup Stadium. They are playing at the other stadium today.”
He gave me details of a different subway station and I set off thankful that he had made the effort to help me out. I had once turned up for a lower league match in Spain only to discover at ten to three that they had moved to a new stadium the previous summer. The bus and players outside the ground a couple of hours earlier that I had thought was the away team arriving was actually the home team departing for their new ground.
I found the correct stadium easily enough this time though after a visit to the tourist information office for a map and some directions. It was much smaller than the World Cup Stadium with a twenty thousand capacity and was right next to a baseball stadium. I didn’t get to find out why Daegu played matches at different grounds, although the World Cup Stadium will be host the World Athletics Championships in 2011, so perhaps they needed to set the hurdles out or something. The prices this week ranged from 7000 won to 10,000 won which is about four quid to six quid. I handed over a 10,000 won note and was given a 7000 won ticket and change. It’s probably worth mentioning the money at this point. Whilst there are apparently some 50,000 won notes in existence, I’ve not seen one so far, they certainly don’t give them out to me at the cash machines. The highest denomination note in common usage therefore is the 10,000 won, which as I’ve said is worth about six quid. 5,000 won and 1,000 won (about sixty pence) notes are also used. The highest value coin is 500 won (thirty pence). The upshot of this is that if you need to carry a couple of hundred quid about with you, you will have a wallet like a Premiership footballer heading for a day at the races or the Aston Martin pimping shop.
It was two thirty when I went into the ground and it was virtually empty. There was no roof and it had a running track between the stands and the pitch. I was able to walk around the entire stadium with the exception of the VIP section towards the centre of one of the stands. If only I’d paid the extra three thousand won, that could have been me. I bought a hazelnut flavour coffee but passed on the dried fish and pot noodles and sat down in what was probably the windiest part of South Korea to watch the match.
By the time that the game kicked off, there were maybe a thousand people in the ground, twenty or so of them making the noise for Daegu behind one goal, most of whom looked about fourteen and a few of which were girls dressed in matching pink jumpers. I’ve always felt that when I was at that age, part of the attraction of football was that for those who didn’t really fit in anywhere, the misfits if you like, football was somewhere where you could go and be part of a crowd, somewhere where you could feel a sense of belonging, somewhere where you could be rubbing shoulders with the cool kids who wouldn’t have acknowledged your existence in other circumstances. It didn’t matter if you liked the wrong music, had a crap haircut or wore embarrassing trainers, for ninety minutes you belonged; you were all in it together. I’m not talking about me, you understand, I like to think that despite my taste for bands that had long ceased to be fashionable, a haircut that exposed my ears when ears were meant to be covered and then vice versa and trainers that invariable had that crucial fourth stripe, I was, at fourteen, cool enough to get by. However, I’m sure that we all knew people that weren’t and football was somewhere where it didn’t matter. These days it’s slightly different, those that struggle to fit in tend to get their sense of belonging from places like message boards instead where from behind the keyboard they can reinvent themselves online as a cross between James Bond and Lionel Messi.
For the fourteen year old lads cheering on Daegu, you could see their sense of belonging, the common purpose and the added bonus for them of having girls in pink jumpers to jump up and down alongside. I don’t remember that in the Holgate end, mind. What more could they ask for on a Saturday afternoon? Well, if I’m being picky, they could probably ask for a defence that could hold out for more than ten minutes before conceding a goal. It wasn’t long before they were one down from a corner and then to make matters worse Won-Keun Jeon managed to pick up two yellow cards within the opening quarter of an hour and was making his way back to the dressing room not so very long after having left it. The fourteen year olds kept up the noise though out, dancing up and down, singing and banging their drums.
At half time they opened the gates and tried to entice in the crowd who were leaving the baseball game at the stadium next door. Despite it being free, there only seemed to be two or three hundred takers, most of whom were wearing a baseball mitt. I’ve never been to a baseball game so that’s something else where I don’t know what goes on. Is the glove in case the ball is hit into the crowd? Do they get a prize if they catch it or is it all about glory? How good would it be if fans were actually allowed to catch the opposition out? That really would give people a sense of belonging. Anyway, not many of the baseball fans felt much of a sense of belonging at the football as quite a few came in to the ground, had a brief look around and then left before the second half kicked off with an expression on their faces that you might have expected if Morrissey had inadvertently wandered into a barbecue. The stewards should really have closed the gates once they had got them in.
In the second half Daegu equalized against the run of play with the sort of scrambled goal where it looked like they were trying harder not to get it over the line. The pink ladies were ecstatic and I was pleased for those twenty odd fans who had kept up the chanting throughout the match. With a couple of ringleaders with megaphones and at least four drums amongst them, one of which even had a cymbal attached, they had made more noise than I’d heard at most Championship grounds in the UK this season.
One of the things that I did notice during the game that seems different to in the UK was that the subs were permanently warming up. Not that half arsed jog towards the corner flag, punctuated by a pause for a bit of a stretch and a chat about spit roasting some girl from Big Brother the previous weekend, but a proper warm up led by one of the coaching staff. They were all ready to come on if needed too, complete with full kit, shin pads and boots.
It looked like the Daegu would get their first point of the season and the fans would be rewarded for their support. However, life doesn’t always work like that and with eight minutes left the Columbian substitute Valencia got the winner for Ulsan. Full time and we were treated to an apologetic bow from the remaining ten Daegu players before I wandered out and caught the Seoul train. You knew I’d been dying to get that one in, didn’t you.
Meanwhile Jeonbuk had retained their unbeaten record with a last minute equalizer in a 1-1 draw at home to Seongnam Ilhwa Chumna, staying top of the league with eight points from their first four games. Lee Dong Gook had been recalled to the starting line-up and played the full ninety minutes but he didn’t get the goal. With a World Cup coming up in the summer it wouldn’t do him any harm to get off the mark.
Next week, I’m off to Incheon which is apparently famous for being the place where General MacArthur landed his invasion force against the North in the Korean War. I’ll be getting there early to watch Incheon Korail play in the afternoon in my first National League match, which is the division below the K-League. Then I’ll follow it up with Incheon United’s top flight game against Ulsan in the evening.