Until June 1 I had never been to a soccer game. I had never watched a soccer game from start to finish without yawning and changing the channel to see if there was anything else on. And I had never, ever, thought either of those two things would change. But then my brother moved to Korea and, being a sports fan, I was obligated to use the chance to take in what most of the planet call the biggest sporting event outside the Olympics.
So there I was on June 1, walking into MacKenzies bar in Ulsan, wearing my beloved Auckland Blues tee-shirt, face painted with a Danish flag (my grandfather was Danish and was there to watch Denmark play Uruguay) when an Irish guy turned around, faced painted and flag tied around his neck, held up his fist and exclaimed in a broad kiwi accent, "Go the Blues!" It seems no matter how far you stray, you're never far from home!
After a few pints of the local brew - Cass - my brother and I set off with a few of his friends from Seoul... and few more new ones from Denmark and Uruguay... to the Ulsan stadium, an ultra futuristic thing that was purpose built for the world cup. It turns out that soccer supporters follow their teams around the world just as we follow our rugby teams and at one stage I spoke to a guy from Denmark who owned a first division soccer club back home. He was rather modest about his team's chances, but being a sports fan I recognised more than a bit of John Mitchell-like bet-hedging going on.
The stadium was fantastic - no pillars holding up the roof and even though I was twenty metres up, I was still only a few from the sideline. Sitting behind the goal at the big screen end meant that Denmark's first half goal was scored at the other end, as was Uruguay's equaliser at the beginning of the second half, but had a great view of Denmark's winner a few minutes from time right down in front of me.
I can't see rugby supporters going quite to the same extent as the soccer guys, mainly because there are long periods of soccer games that resemble what I imagine rugby was like back in the old days when kicking duels were the order of the day. Lots of the same over and over until someone gets lucky and scores. Anyway, the result is that the crowd entertains itself with singing and dancing. And there's nothing wrong with that, it is extremely exciting.
Anyway, Denmark won 2-1 and off we went back to MacKenzies to celebrate and comiserate. I must admit I met some interesting people, including a couple of young ladies from Canturbury who wanted to tell me all about the Crusaders' victory over the Brumbies a couple of weeks earlier. I much preferred to ask them why they had chosen to support Uruguay that day instead of Denmark. Not that I have anything against the Uruguayians - after all they were the team that put Australia out of the World Cup - it's just that they had painted their faces in the Uruguay colours and I must say you Cantabrians look mighty fine in blue and white stripes! I tried to tell them they should do it more often and that they would get a classier type of man if they did, but for some reason they didn't get it. Oh well, I'm hardly Jesus Christ and conversions should be left to Mehrts anyway!
The next day I headed down to Busan where I have always wanted to go and stayed to watch Korea play Poland. Now, I've been to a few sporting events where Korea has been involved and their supporters are amongst the most organised in the world. The soccer team has a fan club called the Red Devils who wear red and have practise sessions in their home cities to get the chants right. The effect is that the stadiums are awash with red and the whole nation following suit on game day.
I headed down to Haeundae Beach - the riviera of Korea - to watch the game where they had set up a huge screen. Thousands of others had the same idea and during the build up to the game I joined in a soccer game on the beach. I have to say however I was hardly Ronaldo as our French defender pointed out at one stage - "Ah Kiwi! you have two left feet no?"
Having said that though, he wasn't too crash hot either... although he was slightly better than the guys in the official French shirts who played in the real tournament!
Game time arrived and thousands of red-shirted Koreans screamed at the big screen, chanting the same chants as those in the stadium and going ballistic when the Koreans scored - something they did twice as they beat Poland 2-0.
When it was all over they all got up, picked up their rubbish and deposited it in little piles all along the beach and headed home like all sports supporters do - very noisely. No one cared though - Korea had won its first game in its world cup history - 53 years of trying - and no one was supposed to go home anyway. I caught the bus and we were held up in traffic for over an hour as we tried to get past hundreds of fans running along the road with their flags and banners.
I spent the rest of the night drinking in an outside bar on Texas street downtown, watching celebrations and fending off Russian hookers that looked like they'd just got back from the women's rugby world cup in Barcelona. Very scary I must say, but all the time I kept reminding myself I was doing it for the interests of the rugbyheads and its unbending resolve to bring its readers quality journalism that gets the real story... hahahaha! Actually I was there for the Cass.
The next day I went back to Seoul to see my brother and have since left the country altogether. Next year it is rugby's turn and for this fan I hope that it can be like Korea. Only one thing will make it truelly better though.. an ABs win. Having a few games in NZ would be nice as well... oh well, can't have everything!