Seoul Martyrs v Cheonan, Saturday 10th July, 5pm.

It was time for my first football match since the World Cup. If I’d wanted to I could have gone down to Jeonju to watch Jeonbuk play in a K-League game. They had got a bit behind in their fixtures due to their Asian Champions League run and so were starting up again a week before everyone else was due to resume after the break for the World Cup.

Whilst the prospect of seeing Lee Dong Gook and his mates get back on track in their championship challenge was quite appealing, I’d already been to Jeonju and so thought that I’d have a trip out to see Seoul Martyrs in the third division instead. I left the house at about half past three for the five o’clock kick off after first putting on a layer of sun cream. It’s getting pretty hot over here at the moment and now that I don’t have much hair my head seems to burn so much more easily.

I’d got a bit of an unwanted bronzing the previous Sunday when I’d spent a day rafting on the Hantan River, a couple of hours to the north east of Seoul. It was an enjoyable day in a very scenic valley, but I’d come home a lot redder than when I went out. I’d also come home with one knee bigger than the other, as whilst on one of those occasions when you get out of the boat to just drift along with the current, I’d whacked my legs on a rock hidden a couple of feet below the surface.  Still, I’m not going to complain too much as I count any day in the water as a success if I can manage not to drown. And speaking of successes, I’d doubled the number of Korean words that I know by the frequent use of  “One, Two” or “Hana, Dul” as we rowed. If the gas industry ever dips into recession I’m confident I could now make a reasonable living coxing Dragon boats.

I should really have allowed a bit more time to get to the match as I had to sit through twenty four stops on the subway before arriving at Soyu station in the north of Seoul about twenty minutes before the 5pm kickoff. I hopped into a taxi and asked the driver to take me to Gangbuk Soccer Stadium. Normally I like nothing better than putting people straight on the correct `Football v Soccer` terminology, but today I didnt have the time or the inclination to get involved and just took the easy option. Or what I thought was the easy option.. He looked at me as if my over-reddened face was due to the telephone ringing whilst I was ironing rather than the effects of the sun and he kept repeating in apparent disbelief,

“Gangbuk? Soccer Stadium?”

It was as if I’d asked him to take me to Harrods in Billingham town centre.

“Yes, Gangbuk Soccer Stadium” I confirmed.

He shook his head and started jabbering away in that aggressive way that a lot of Koreans do, even I imagine when they are reading their kids bedtime stories. I often listen to my colleagues at work talking and from the tone of their voices I am usually convinced that they are having a violent argument that will end in one of them being hurled out of the fourteenth floor window. More often than not it turns out to be nothing more sinister than one telling the other what he had eaten for lunch.

Fortunately I had the address of the stadium written down and I handed it over with a smug look on my face. He read it, shook his head again and went back to his routine of;

“Gangbuk? Soccer Stadium?”

Now I know the third division doesn’t have big crowds, but as far as I was aware I was within a couple of miles of the stadium and he was a taxi driver who makes his living driving people to places in Seoul, so it shouldn’t really have been beyond him.

Anyway, he set off, still chuntering away. I was tempted to use my newfound knowledge and give him a quick burst of “Hana, Dul, Hana, Dul” to hurry him along but on reflection felt that it might not necessarily help. A hundred yards or so later, he pulled up at a taxi rank and got out to ask for directions, taking with him my piece of paper with the address on.

A minute or two later he got back into the taxi and picked up where he left off, like an Action Man with a jammed voice cord.

“Soccer Stadium?”

“Yes, but Gangbuk Soccer Stadium” I replied, not wanting him to try and solve his dilemma by taking me to the World Cup Stadium a few miles away instead. That was enough to set him off again.

“Gangbuk? Soccer Stadium?”

I think he sensed from me hitting my forehead with the palm of my hand that I was ready to get out and so he set off again, but with a bit more decisiveness this time. He cut across two lanes of traffic and swung the car into what looked like a school. Perhaps he thought that they would have a pitch there that he could pass off as the Gangbuk Soccer Stadium.  A few minutes later he was back on the main road and stopped to ask a woman stood at the traffic lights. He barked at her in the same way he had been doing at me and she, after giving him what appeared to be a mouthful back,  pointed  in the direction that we had just come from and gave him a few directions. A quick U turn and a couple of minutes later we were there.

I still don’t think he could believe that someone would choose to watch a game there, if indeed he had any idea that there was a match taking place. I’m pretty sure that he was expecting me to admit my mistake and to then sheepishly ask him to drive on to the World Cup Stadium or somewhere. But I didnt, I paid him as gracefully as my mood allowed, which wasnt very gracefully at all as it happens, and got out.

The stadium was at the top of a short incline and I could see through the bars of the large gate to the terracing at the far end. I went through a smaller gate to the right and was inside. Nobody appeared to be collecting any money, which wasnt surprising really as the six or seven step terracing was surrounded on the other three sides by woodland. A path ran all the way around the pitch and there seemed to be almost as many walkers taking a bit of exercise as there were spectators at the match. It was all very picturesque, although I imagine that had anyone been taking a walk through the woods, it would have been quite an odd sight to stumble across as you came to a clearing.

The teams were on the pitch and about to kick off. Seoul Martyrs, who were struggling towards the bottom of the table, were in red shirts, with black shorts and white socks. Their opponents, Cheonan, had the same shorts and socks combo, but were wearing white shirts.

The home team had the advantage of five fans behind the goal who were making as much noise as they could, with a drum, loudhailer and one who had made the unusual choice of banging two empty plastic drinks bottles together. Perhaps it will be the craze of the next World Cup.  I didnt see any away fans although if their taxi experience had been anything like mine, they could still have been travelling around Seoul trying to convince their driver that they really didnt want to be at the Olympic Stadium ten miles away.

There were maybe another hundred or so people watching, spread around the pitch, some in the small covered stand at the halfway line, others sat on benches and looking like they were just taking a short break from a stroll in the park.

The game was fairly even for the first twenty minutes or so, Cheonan looked marginally the better team and were passing the ball well. Seoul probably had the best couple of chances though before Cheonan took the lead with a well struck shot. There was polite applause from most of the crowd, so it looked as if they were neutrals who had just nipped out for a bit of fresh air.

I wondered if the first goal would open the floodgates. When the two teams had met last in October, Cheonan had won 12-0 and whilst I don’t like a game to be too one-sided, a score like that would more than make up for any lack of tension over where the points were going. By half time though, there was still just the single goal in it. I popped into the small convenience store just outside the main gate for a drink, only to find a couple of the Cheonan subs in there, one of them keeping his blood sugar levels up with an ice cream, the other taking on board a little extra energy by way of a Pot Noodle.

It didnt take Cheonan long to score a second after the restart, with a breakaway goal that was very well finished. The Seoul Martyrs fans kept up the noise though and their team still didnt look out of it. I was hoping they would pull one back just so that I could tell a passerby the score with my new Korean words, but they didnt. Still, it was a big improvement from the last time they had met Cheonan. Unfortunately I had to leave after an hour as I had stuff planned for that evening and so I had to wait a couple of days to find out that Cheonan had added a third after I’d gone. Fortunately the taxi driver on the way out didn’t find it too unreasonable when I asked him to take me to the nearest subway station.

Further south, Jeonbuk Motors beat Daegu by four goals to nil with Lee Dong Gook coming on as a second half sub and scoring twice in the final few minutes. It moved them up to sixth place in the table, five points behind leaders Ulsan Horang-i but with a game in hand. I’ll probably go and see them next week when they visit Daejeon Citizen.

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