Last Wednesday I tried a couple of new things. Firstly, I went to see South Korea play Nigeria. I’d seen the national team play against Argentina in South Africa during the World Cup but after missing their warm-up game against Ecuador a few months ago in favour of a lantern festival, this was the first time that I’d actually watched them on their home soil in front of a Korean crowd. And then, after the game, I ate my first silkworm pupae.
I’ll start with the football. Mainly because eating silkworm is more interesting and so I’ll save that until the end. Plus the football happened first, so it keeps things in the right order.
The international matches are usually played at the 68,000 capacity Seoul stadium, but for some reason this game was given to Suwon, which is a city a little south of Seoul. I’d been there before and had walked around the ancient fortress wall before watching the K-League game between Suwon and Daejeon Citizen. On that occasion it had taken me virtually all day to get to the ground, a luxury that I didn’t really have time for when I have to work until six o’clock and the game kicks off at eight.
Luckily I had a bit of assistance in fellow Teessider Alan, who I’d gone with to the Seoul v Suwon League Cup game a couple of weeks earlier. Alan met me at the subway station in Gangnam whilst his wife waited in the queue for our bus. It meant that twenty minutes after I’d left work bang on six o’clock, we were already on our way as the bus set off in the rush hour traffic. Normally it takes about three quarters of an hour to get to Suwon, tonight though, with the extra match traffic it was twenty to eight before we arrived.
Fortunately Alan had already bought the tickets and so it was straight to one of the lengthy queues to get in. It was free seating, even to the extent of which stand you chose and after abandoning our initial attempt to sit under cover at the side of the pitch, we ended up behind the goal.
It looked as if we were in the away end at first, as the only people in there appeared to be Africans, but with the free seating policy it soon filled up with Koreans as well. There wasn’t any segregation, although there were a lot of police present and the Nigerian fans mainly took up residence in the lower tier.
This was a big game for Korea, their first under new manager Cho Kwang Rae and his promised 3-4-3 formation.. Unfortunately for Lion King fans, Cho had decided not to call up Lee Dong Gook and when asked about the omission of the 85 times capped striker he was quoted as saying;
“Lee Dong-gook is a good player. But I’m looking for more of an active player with strong passing abilities,” Cho said. “If Lee improves his conditioning, there’s always a possibility that he will return to the team in the future.”
So, whilst the door wasn’t entirely closed on Lee Dong Gook, for another long standing player it was to be a farewell appearance. Veteran goalie Lee Won Jae had decided to call it a day at thirty seven. After sitting on the bench in South Africa in what was his fourth World Cup, he had been recalled to the starting line-up for a final appearance and a presentation had been arranged at half time to mark his service and 132 cap career. It would have been even more caps had he not been suspended for a year for partying with Lee Dong Gook and a couple of other players before an Asian Cup game three years ago. Still, all that seemed forgotten as the teams lined up for the national anthems in a stadium that was probably about two thirds full, but with a lot more people still queueing outside or stuck in the traffic.
Judging by the noise of the crowd, there were a lot of youngsters there and any attacking movement by South Korea was greeted by the sort of noise that I’d last heard at schoolboy internationals. There were quite a few vuvuzelas too, not enough to recreate the South Africa drone, but enough to supplement the shrieks that were heard whenever South Korea got into the Nigerian half of the pitch.
Korea’s new wing back formation worked pretty well with Choi Hyo Jin in particular getting forward at every opportunity and after a quarter of an hour Korea were in front with a very well taken goal from Yoon Bitgarem. Fifteen minutes later and it was time for retiring goalie Lee Won Jae to depart to get showered and changed for his half time retirement ceremony. Unfortunately for him, as his replacement stood waiting to come on Nigeria scored from a set piece and his last act as a player was to pick the ball out of the net. The applause as he left the field was a little muted, perhaps a consequence of the unfortunate timing as much as anything.
A few minutes before the break South Korea were back in front with the wingback Choi Hyo Jin making a well timed run to finish off a chance from a very cleverly placed through ball.
Half time brought the Lee Won Jae retirement show and we were treated to a lone trumpeter playing the Pet Shop Boys ’Go West’, a display of drumming and on the big screen a highlights reel of just about everything he’d ever done bar the late night drinking incident.
An emotional Lee, who was now looking very dapper in a suit and tie, made his way onto the pitch with his daughters, received a couple of presents, made a speech, hugged his goalkeeping successors and finally, to great applause, bowed to all sides of the stadium.
After all that the second half was a bit of an anti climax. There were plenty of substitutions but no more goals and South Korea finished up winning 2-1.
There were big queues for the buses so we decided to go for something to eat afterwards and let the crowds clear. We went into quite a small restaurant and as we sat down a couple of small dishes were placed on the table, a bit like tapas. Except that when I lived in Spain I didn’t ever get given silkworm pupae to eat.
I’d seen and smelt silkworm at some of the stalls in the street and managed to walk past without being tempted. Still, its different if they are put on a table in front of you and although I’d only had a couple of pints at the match I thought, why not? They tasted a bit like Oxo, although I’ve no idea if that is because of the seasoning or whether that is their natural taste. They were soft, not crunchy, but they weren’t filled with pus in the way that maggots are. Or at least they didnt seem to be. I just ate them one at a time and maybe had half a dozen in total.
For the main course we had dotorimuk, which is made of acorn starch. I’d had this before at work and unlike the silkworm it’s a nightmare to eat with chopsticks. It came with a variety of vegetables which were a little easier to handle.
We washed it down with dongdongju, which is a fermented rice wine, a bit like makkeoli but with more flavour and alcohol content. I hadn’t drank it before so it was yet another first for me in a night of new stuff. An hour or so later the crowds had cleared and we were able to easily get a bus back to Gangnam.