Korean politicians ride bandwagonPosted: Tuesday June 25, 2002 5:50 AM
Updated: Tuesday June 25, 2002 6:00 AM
By Paul Kennedy, Soccer America
SEOUL -- It's an election year here in South Korea, and both presidential candidates have been angling to get on the World Cup bandwagon.
That doesn't mean they're actually following the tournament.
Roh Moo Hyun, candidate of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party, was at the Seoul World Cup Stadium for the opening ceremonies, but he didn't stay for the France-Senegal match. He had a tight schedule, we're told.
The Korean symbol of this World Cup is the Red Devils, the young Korean supporters, and opposition candidate Lee Hoi Chang of the Grand National Party is eyeing their support. Lee is described as a "stubborn conservative" and wants to change his image.
"Lee will root for the Korean national team with young people at World Cup matches, canvass on streets crowded with youths and emphasize his commitment to creating more jobs and brighter economic prospects for future generation," a spokesman told the Korea Herald.
On the eve of Korea's opening game with Poland, Roh and Lee would have gotten stiff opposition from the South Korea coach, Dutchman Guus Hiddink.
"Hiddink for President?" asked the Korea Times in a headline.
A local DJ suggested that the Korean constitution should be changed to allow naturalized Koreans to run for president.
One candidate in the June 13 Busan mayoral race adopted the slogan "He think Busan." "Hiddink" and "He think" sound almost the same in Korean.
Hiddink's popularity was tied to the success of his Korean team in its final warmup before the World Cup. Hiddink was lambasted in the Korean press after last winter's Gold Cup - much of the criticism centered around the presence of his girlfriend, very much a no-no for Korean businessmen - but his work is now the viewed as a model for Koreans. Hiddink is on every channel giving a victory salute in a Samsung credit card commercial. Less than a year ago, Samsung scrapped the Hiddink ad because Korea was playing so lousy.
The Samsung Economic Research Institute released a report titled "Hiddink Leadership." Hiddink's attributes: long-term planning and success under pressure. Samsung chairman Lee Kun Hee was reported to be looking for "Hiddink-style" CEOs, noting the value of foreign expertise.
CURFEW BREAKER. Koreans were slowly coming around to the World Cup.
There wasn't much interest among inmates at the Chongju women's prison until they were told they'd be allowed to stay up after their 10 p.m. curfew to watch the end of the evening matches.
"Although our inmates in their 30s and 40s had not been very interested in football," said a spokesman for the prison, "as the World Cup approached, they changed their mind."
Inmates are usually allowed to watch only news channels.
Local newspapers were hoping to draw huge crowds to watch Korea's matches on giant screens installed in public parks, but FIFA was haggling with them over TV rights. Pockets of World Cup fever were limited to areas popular with expatriates. The Itaewon section of Seoul was bustling with activity on the first weekend of play.
Some Koreans admitted they didn't know where to go to get in the spirit.
In Seogwipo, on the island of Jeju, a street with restaurants and bars was designated "World Cup Street," but few knew where it was.
REDUCING CONGESTION. Koreans were asked to make sacrifices. By government edict, Koreans were told to smile. In most World Cup cities, motorists were told to leave their cars at home on alternate days to relieve congestion.
The congestion surely had nothing to do with the World Cup.
Crowds were very disappointing the first four days. Sections of the Seoul World Cup Stadium were empty for the opener. The Busan Asiad Stadium cost $175 million, but it was less than half full for the Paraguay-Spain game. KOWOC, the Korean organizing committee, was setting up contingency plans to bus in police, volunteers and youth players to fill empty seats.
There's been a lot of finger pointing among KOWOC, FIFA and Byrom, the British company that's handled the ticketing. KOWOC says $770,000 a game has been lost on unsold tickets, and there's talk of a lawsuit. The ticket fiasco was not unexpected. The hundreds of thousands of foreign fans who were anticipated never came.
The $2 billion South Korea spent on stadiums and infrastructure is proving to be a costly investment, but the Koreans are pressing ahead.
VIRTUAL WORLD CUP. Korea's economy is booming - Kospi, the Korean stock market, is the hottest in the world this year. And everyone wants to show off the high-tech Korea - the Korea that boasts of 54 percent of all households with broadband access, four times the percentage in the United States.a
This is the first virtual World Cup. The opening ceremonies featured "computer clowns," figures with flat-screen heads. KT, the Korean telecommunications sponsor, put the free publicity it will generate in the foreign media at 1.9 trillion won ($1.5 billion). Rival Speed011 adopted the Red Devils, organizing "Red Train" service to take young supporters to Korea's first-round matches.
The Koreans are enormously generous, more than happy to assist. Over the entrance of our hotel, which catered to foreign journalists covering the World Cup, was a sign announcing Internet access in every room. There might have been Internet access, but us computer illiterates from the United States couldn't get it to work. The bellhop was dispatched in the middle of the night to help out. Without success.
The next day at the media center, KT turned us on to its Internet special, unlimited access during the World Cup for 55,000 won ($44). Once again, no go. It seems those of us with Macs were out of luck. I had six volunteers huddled around my computer trying to find a solution. None struck me as a computer expert, but they were trying. Within a few minutes, we were in business.
Our virtual World Cup had begun.
Paul Kennedy is Managing Editor at Soccer America magazine