Depending on your point of view, the 2013 East Asian Cup either sums up everything that’s wrong with international game, or everything that’s right with it. On the one hand, the detractors can point to the interruption of domestic schedules, the lack of experienced international players called up by the participants (for the men’s event, anyway) and the largely small crowds that the tournament was eventually played out in front of; at roughly the same time as Australia were playing Korea in front of 30,000 fans and Japan in front just 2,000, Manchester United and Liverpool were Down Under drawing crowds upwards of 80,000 and 90,000 respectively.
On the other hand, there are those fans, like me, that just appreciate the chance to watch a bit of international football; box-tickers, if you will, able to add new players, new teams and new grounds to their secret spreadsheets. So, when it was announced that the fourth EAFF East Asian Cup would be held in grounds I could (mostly) get to with ease and on convenient dates, I was pretty happy. With 12 matches being played over six matchdays, I was hopeful of getting to as many games as possible. In the end, I saw a disappointing four, but things could have been worse.
I’d spent the night before the opening round of fixtures on a pre-season getaway with some teammates, but was hoping to head straight to the Seoul World Cup Stadium on returning to the capital. “I’d prefer if you didn’t go,” are not the words any husband wants to read in a text from his wife when he’s just checked that it’s okay to go the football. It’s not a direct refusal of permission, but a clear indication that by going you’re heading for trouble. I was determined, though, and gave the die one last desperate throw: “Why don’t you come with me?” It has not been unknown for my wife to come along to the occasional game of football- our first proper date was a K-League fixture- but her already limited enthusiasm is continually on the wane. A few more texts went back and forth before it was finally decided that we were off to the game.
My eagerness to attend was down to one man: Hong MyungBo. South Korea recently qualified for their eighth consecutive World Cup, a record only matched by the world’s biggest footballing nations. The Korean people, though, seem more downbeat about their qualification than even the most depressed World Cup non-attendee. They have not suddenly become blasé to the game’s biggest event, rather their apathy (and, for some, anger) is more to do with the disappointing way qualification was achieved.
Cho KwangRae’s exciting young team started qualification well enough, but when a defeat in Lebanon briefly threatened next year’s trip to Brazil, the Korean Football Association replaced Cho with the more old-school Choi KangHee. His more functional brand of football just about ensured passage to Brazil (thanks to a better goal difference than Uzbekistan of just one), but was unpopular with both players- comments on a ‘private’ Facebook account owned by Swansea City’s Ki SeungYeung were particularly critical- and fans.
With qualification sealed, Choi, as planned, stepped aside and there was only ever one name in the race to replace him. The 2002 World Cup may have made stars out of a generation of Korean footballers, but the biggest name at the time was their captain, Hong MyungBo. 2002 was Hong’s fourth World Cup and he ended the tournament being named in FIFA’s All Star Team. Since the ‘Eternal Libero’ led his country to an Olympic football bronze medal in 2012, it was only a matter of time before he got the top job.
My enthusiasm for Hong’s first game in charge was seemingly not matched by his countrymen. Despite what appeared to this non-Korean speaking observer as massive sports media interest in the week leading-up, a tweet from top Asian football journo John Duerden said that only 6,000 of the stadium 60,000+ capacity had been sold on the morning of the match. This was good for me because I hadn’t bought tickets in advance and there were clearly plenty available, but bad because I wasn’t expecting to arrive much more than 30 minutes before kick-off and might end up in a long queue with other late arrivals. Getting tickets actually proved easy and with a couple of Hoegardens, a pleasant recent addition to the stadium’s fridges, we took our seats among an eventual crowd of about 30,000. After a somewhat unique rendition of Advance Australia Fair, the game got underway.
The slow ticket sales weren’t the only worrying sign, at least if you believe in the theory of squad members as an indicator of how seriously a manager is taking a game. Hong had four debutants in his starting eleven with the outfield players wearing an average shirt number of 15. Korea’s inexperienced team had, however, almost all the ball in the first half and totally dominated the similarly understrength Aussies. Hong’s game plan appeared to involve his wingers and full-backs getting crosses into the box and it was a particularly effective strategy on the home-side’s left flank. But, while Korea were the better team, it was Aussie goalkeeper Eugene Galekovic who was the star, making several excellent saves. Yoon IlRok, who was otherwise excellent, was most profligate.
Korea continued to dominate in the second half, but created far fewer chances. Despite the tighter Aussie defence, Galekovic was still called upon occasionally and it was largely down to him that the game ended in a 0-0 draw.
The following evening, I toyed with the idea of a South v. North Korea (women’s) and Japan v. China (men’s) double-header, but decided this would be too much for the wife and settled for watching on TV. The North took the women’s game, while China came from 3-1 down to draw with a very inexperienced Japan, meaning all honours were even in the men’s tournament going into round two.
That saw the Hong MyungBo reign move out of Seoul and into neighboring Gyeonggi Province for the next game against China. For this one, I was tagging along with two of Korea’s most well-travelled groundhoppers, one being the gatekeeper of the ’48 Club’- a Korean equivalent of visiting all 92 English league grounds- and the other a soon-to-be club member.
I left work and took a bus from Gangnam to Suwon. Having received precise directions from my more experienced companions, I was soon on another bus out to Hwaseong. Foreign football fans have recently been heading to the city to see the city’s magnificent new football stadium. As the bus approaches from Suwon, the first view of the stadium makes it look like a giant silver slug in its semi-rural setting; a foreground of farmland and a backdrop of Korea’s ubiquitous beige apartment buildings.
The Hwaseong Stadium is almost as ridiculous as it magnificent. The one-year old stadium seats 35,000 supporters, but is not the regular home to any team. The local side, recently-formed Hwaseong FC, usually play in the much smaller adjacent stadium. They also play in the Korean fourth tier, which is usually lucky to attract a three-figure crowd. However, this was the second visit by the national team.
The South Korean women followed up defeat by North Korea with another loss, this time to China, meaning they could no longer win the event (Again, I disappointingly arrived too late for the women’s match). Hong changed nine for the men’s game, but his team played in a similar style and were equally as dominant as they had been against Australia. Yoon IlRok again impressed and midfielders Park JongWoo and Han KooKyung showed the depth Korea have in that position. The opposition goalkeeper was again far busier than Korea’s Jung SungRyung, most notably keeping out Han’s swerving long-range effort.
K-Pop idols Girls Day provided the half-time entertainment, but I went off to get a round of beers in. The pre-game beers had been warm, and the lack of a queue suggested only further bad news; either a) the snack bar was closed, or b) it had run out of beer. It turned out to be the latter. Poor planning! It wasn’t an entirely wasted trip though as I got a good view of Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni, who was seated in a cordoned-off area a rows below us.
Just as against Australia, Korea continued to dominate, but had their chances limited by some Chinese tactical changes and the Chinese keeper’s performance became less influential. Seo DongHyun had the best chance, but fluffed a left-footed effort straight at the keeper. It was his last touch before being replaced by Kim ShimWook, a good player, but who, given his Peter Crouch-physique and association with the unpopular Choi-regime (and the more talented players that can be called on when everyone is available), is likely never to be fully appreciated.
The game ended in another 0-0 draw. The challenge for two of our small group was now to get back to Seoul. Finding the speedy bus back to Suwon proved too difficult, so it was onto the local stopper and a race against time to get the last train or subway back into the city. Progress was slow, but after leaving the football traffic behind, all that was required was a short dash across the train station. The last train to Seoul Station was just pulling in as we made it onto the platform. At least Sunday’s final match day would be less problematic.
Again, I missed Saturday’s women’s matches. I had really hoped to catch some of the games, particularly the Japan’s world champions. They were unable to add the East Asian title to their trophy cabinet, losing to South Korea in their final match. That meant the ladies from North Korea would be taking the silverware with them back across the 38th Parallel. In the men’s event, following Japan’s 3-2 win over Australia, only the Aussies were out of the running.
The venue for this final weekend was the Seoul Olympic Stadium. I’d been to the stadium for various events, but never to watch football. It’s 25 years since the giant concrete bowl hosted the Olympics and it is not aging well. A lick of paint would be the minimum requirement for a stadium that is fast becoming as dirty as the infamous 100m Final that it hosted.
I really like the way the current Japan team play football, and from the bits and pieces I’d seen on TV, the youthful squad that Zaccheroni had brought to Korea were capable of playing in a similar style. However, I would be cheering for Korea. My nine-year association with the country has turned me into a fan and it’s not often I miss a National Team game (as they mostly play in Seoul). Also, I was going to the match with two Korean friends and one of their dads, while a Japanese friend was a late withdrawal.
First, though, China were taking on Australia, and the Chinese gave themselves a great chance of overall victory with a 4-3 win. The first goal came from a wonderful cross-field pass out to the Chinese left. The full back attacked and pulled back for Yu Dabao to score. Aaron Mooy hit a 30-yard rocket to equalize, but China were by far the more impressive team of the half.
The second half continued in the same vein and China got a deserved second. Things got a bit crazy in the final moments, as, be it the humidity or just knowing their tournament was over, the Australian defence allowed China in for very late third and fourth goals. With a decent goal difference and the trophy in-sight, it was alarming how quickly the Chinese then switched off; Adam Taggart scored almost straight from kick-off, and Mitchell Duke got a second consolation in injury-time. China, however, went in to the final game in first place.
The crowds were finally out in force, despite a baseball match between Seoul’s two biggest teams going on next door. Although only a few thousand saw the first game, including a large number of local Chinese and a much smaller, yet similarly noisy group of Aussies, almost 50,000 fans were there to watch the finale. I was looking forward to a noisy and intimidating atmosphere for my first game between these two historical rivals.
The Korean fans were certainly in provocative mood. First, they loudly booed the Japanese anthem, and then displayed large banners depicting two historical Korean thorns in the side of Japan: 16th century admiral Yi SunSin, and 20th century independence activist An JungGeun.
On the field, Korea were playing most of their football in the opposition half for a third game in a row. Although they were creating far fewer chances on this occasion, it was still somewhat against the run of play when a long pass found Cerezo Osaka’s much-hyped Yoichiro Katikani onside, and he put Japan ahead. The continually impressive Yun IlRok finished off a cleverly worked move with a long-range curling effort to equalise before half-time and the sides went into the break at 1-1.
The second half was a much cagier affair than the other games I’d seen in the tournament. Japan were no doubt aware that a 1-1 draw would give them the title (courtesy of fewer yellow cards than China) and were happy to sit back as Korea went in search of the two goals they needed to claim the title.
The Koreans lost the vocal support of their fans midway through the second half, as the noisy home supporters took down all banners and seemingly began a silent protest at having been ordered to take down one offensive message warning future generations of Japanese not to forget their country’s past. While I support their view that a country should not choose to ignore a violent history, I do not think a minor football tournament (or any football tournament, for that matter) is the best place to be airing these views.
Eventually, in the very last minute, one of Japan’s counter attacks ended in a goal. Jung SungRyung could only parry a shot to Katikani and he almost certainly sealed Japan’s victory. The Korean crowd rediscovered their voices to cheer on their countrymen for the five added minutes, but despite several half chances from a series of long throws and corners, Japan claimed the win and the East Asian Cup.
Korea will feel disappointed with their eventual third place finish, as they did more than enough to win their first two matches and probably just about shaded the game against Japan. However, scoring a single goal in a tournament where the other teams scored freely (there were 21 goals scored in the six men’s matches) was never going to be enough. The Korean people though, are likely to have been heartened by the performances under Hong. It looks likely he’ll be able to build on his Olympic success and take a team to Brazil that the Korean people can be proud of.
HIGHS: Four international football matches in eight days, and all for less than £50; the performances of Yun IlRok; Aaron Mooy’s thunderbolt; Hwaseong Stadium; a first Korea-Japan experience
LOWS: Getting to and from Hwaseong Stadium; the grim Olympic Stadium; the poor planning that led to two grounds selling out of beer; seeing less than half the tournament’s goals, despite attending two-thirds of the matches.