[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 May 2006, 00:32 GMT 01:32 UK
South Korea's hard act to follow
By Charles Scanlon
BBC News, Seoul

South Korean football fan
Football and nationalism have fused into a potent cocktail
South Koreans are gearing themselves up for the World Cup with their customary fervour.

This is a country with a point to make - the semi-final appearance at the last World Cup was no fluke.

With a month to go before the first match, thousands packed into City Hall Plaza in the centre of Seoul - the scene of much riotous jubilation four years ago.

The red shirted masses waved national flags and belted out favourite songs from the last tournament - it felt more like a religious revival than a pep rally for a sporting event.

"There were massive crowds in the streets during the last World Cup - it was the first time Koreans had opened their eyes to football," said 22-year old Lim Ji-sung.

"The hope and fervour will continue this time as well."

High expectations

Football and nationalism have fused into a potent cocktail - particularly for younger Koreans.

The crowd in the square broke into the national anthem as giant screens relayed aerial pictures of Dokdo island - isolated rocks at the centre of a territorial dispute with Japan.

South Korea's World Cup squad carries the dreams of a nation that feels hard done by - cheated by history and disrespected by its neighbours.

There may be other good teams around the world, but no-one has supporters like us
Supporter Hwang Ki-hoon

Football is a way to set the record straight - to assert national power and get the global recognition Koreans feel they lack.

It is a tough challenge for the Dutch coach, Dick Advocaat, who has done nothing to calm expectations in the run-up to the competition.

He is the third coach to take the job since the triumphs of fellow Dutchman Guus Hiddink four years ago.

Two others were given short shrift when the team slumped in the aftermath of the World Cup.

"We have a strong squad - we can be very dangerous, we can damage a lot of defences," Mr Advocaat told a nationally televised news conference as he announced the team.

European success

The squad has 10 players with World Cup experience. Even more important are the players who have established themselves in top European leagues since 2002.

Prominent amongst them is midfielder Park Ji-sung of Manchester United.

Manchester United player Park Ji-sung
Park Ji-sung's success in England has caught the imagination

Koreans had little interest in foreign leagues - or even the low key domestic league - until 2002. Sporting passion was reserved for baseball and particularly for Korean players in the US major league.

That has all changed with the success of Park Ji-sung and others in Europe - Manchester United and Real Madrid are now as familiar in Seoul as the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox.

But the domestic game is still underdeveloped and attendances are low. In South Korea, football still begins and ends with the national team.

Confidence

That fervour was on display for the world to see at the last World Cup. The stadiums, and city squares, were a sea of red when Korea played - with barely a foreign supporter visible.

"The disadvantage this time is that we play away," accepts Dick Advocaat.

South Korea has played in six consecutive World Cups but never won a game until the competition was played at home.

Shrill complaints about refereeing decisions took some of the sheen off South Korea's stunning progress into the semi-finals.

Footballing giants Italy and Spain protested loudly about their shock defeats.

This time South Korea meets France, Switzerland and Togo in the first round - and most Koreans are confident they will get through to the knock-out phase.

"The last time we went to the semi-finals so this time I'm sure we'll get to the finals. There may be other good teams around the world, but no-one has supporters like us," said 29-year-old fan Hwang Ki-hoon.

Not even the coach is that optimistic. But the Koreans have proved often enough that they should not be underestimated.




SEE ALSO
South Korea team guide
22 May 06 |  South Korea
Country profile: South Korea
20 Apr 06 |  Country profiles

RELATED BBC LINKS

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites



FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

PRODUCTS & SERVICES

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific