By Jimmy LaRoue
I’m wearing the tie-dye t-shirt I wore in Suwon, South Korea, 10 years ago today when the U.S. men’s national team pulled off a stunning 3-2 win over heavily-favored Portugal, a game that has proven the test of time to be my favorite sports memory ever.
I blew out my bank account to go on that trip with my friend, Andy Gustafson, who wrote the book, 23 Days in Korea: An American at the World Cup. It was well-worth the money. I got the cultural and communal experience of a lifetime in South Korea that summer–three weeks of soccer bliss.
From the new friends I made, to sharing the streets with a million South Koreans in Seoul during a couple of games, and seeing, up close and personal, the success of the U.S. players during the World Cup, it’s something I still share with my wife and friends 10 years later, and will relive over and over for the rest of my life.
I had just started covering soccer in earnest the year before with the startup of the then-WUSA and covering D.C. United, the Richmond Kickers and anything else my blog-turned-website could get a credential to cover in the Maryland-D.C.-Virginia area, and my good friend (and best man at my wedding) Mark Bushman got Andy and I together, as we both had an interest in going to our first-ever World Cup, but neither of us wanted to travel solo for it. So we saved, arranged to get our game and plane tickets, and then flew halfway across the world for the experience of a lifetime.
That experience only cemented my love for a sport I started playing when I was nine years old on clobs of grass in Stafford County. Now, I cover the game where so many more of the fields are nearly perfectly manicured and the game has grown exponentially. And while I don’t get (and haven’t gotten) to watch and cover nearly as many games as I’d like–time, distance and money factor, and have factored, into all of that–it hasn’t changed my love for the sport.
I brought home U.S. and South Korean flags, a t-shirt and an infinite amount of great memories. My friend Andy has all the photos we took–most of which I took with his camera–though I lost the CD he gave me of those photos. I loaned it out and never saw them again. Wish I could see those photos again, but still, it’s my greatest soccer moment, and greatest sports moment, period. And it’ll always stay in my heart. I suspect that, for many others, they feel the same.
With that said, I’d like to share the blog journal I wrote 10 years ago to remember the experience. It’s more cultural than chronological, but I hope you enjoy it nonetheless. These are the first two entries I wrote. I kept the blog for my own website I had at the time (onthesidelines.org) and for Sam’s Army. Over the coming days, I’ll share the rest of my entries from 10 years ago:
Monday, June 03, 2002
Jet Lagged But Ready To Go
SEOUL, June 2, 2002–A dream trip of a lifetime is reality.
I am here in Seoul, South Korea and will spend the next three weeks attending seven World Cup matches and learning about an entirely different culture from the one from which I grew up. This includes at least three U.S. matches, Spain/Paraguay, Costa Rica/Brazil, and two other matches in the round of 16 and quarterfinal of the tournament. I hope that includes the U.S.
This dispatch will be the first of many that I and my friend Andy Gustafson will post throughout our three-week stay.
In any case, the trip is shaping up to be an exciting adventure for me and Andy, who conceived the idea for this trip quite some time ago. However, it wasn’t until the last minute that I even knew I’d be going for sure, due to some work complications. It is settled now, and I wouldn’t miss this for the world.
The trip over went fairly smoothly. I can’t recall how much I’ve slept. I don’t normally sleep well when I travel, and this was no exception. If I did sleep, it was probably during the Harry Potter movie being shown on the Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Seoul, our second leg of the journey that had us leave Washington, D.C. early Sunday morning.
We made it here without any problems and have even met up with a few more travelers who are attending some of the matches as well.
Everyone we talk to is excited for the cup being in Korea, and the excitement of the Korean people is clear. Nearly every shop and food establishment in Seoul that we’ve come across so far has someone sitting in front of a TV watching a match, currently Brazil/Turkey. Every newspaper is full of news and pictures on the Korean team, as well as the other teams in the tournament. The airport even has TVs every 50 yards or so tuned into a match.
As our flight approached, we saw the World Cup Stadium in Seoul from overhead, and then on our bus ride into the city, passed by it once again. Tomorrow, we’ll be meeting up with some other fans of the U.S. team.
I’ve even put my limited Korean skills to use. By limited, I mean none. Andy and I got to the hotel in downtown Seoul and I proceeded to violate a Korean tradition by having my shoes on in my room instead of taking them off first outside. Realizing my misstep, I took them off, but then, I managed to lock myself out of my room. First I should explain that the room is set up so that there is an entrance door, another door to the bedroom, and another door to the shower. The doors to the bedroom and shower are only supposed to be locked when you’re already in them. Well, I locked the bedroom door and the main door to my room, so I had to put that Korean phrasebook to use and fortunately, our very hospitable hosts opened it for me.
Well, it is time for Andy and I to sample some Korean food. I definitely have a lot more to say, so stay tuned, and Andy will be posting his own observations from Korea. So partake in the excitement in whatever way you can. Between Andy and I, we hope to bring you a sense of excitement we feel about being here, and the excitement that is the World Cup.
Jimmy LaRoue 6:30 AM
Wednesday, June 05, 2002
SUWON, June 5, 2002–”You want a suit. A custom-made suit. Come with me, to my shop,” the Korean tailor said to Andy and I, and we were on our way down an alley to hear his pitch to sell us suits at $180 each.
We didn’t buy, but it wasn’t for a lack of opportunity. We were hit up at least six times during our day Tuesday in Itaewon.
Itaewon’s a place where, when we told our new Korean friends Sang-Jun Hyun and Joung-Rak Choi, on Monday night while we were having drinks that we were going there the next day, looked at us derisively.
It didn’t matter that we told them we were meeting a bunch of U.S. supporters at the Nashville bar. Itaewon is a tacky, vibrant flea market scented touristy area that gives little sense of the Korean people, their spirit, or their hospitality.
Their hospitality was evident at dinner with Mr. Hyun and Mr. Choi. The neighborhood our hotel is in gives off a totally different vibe and offers a truer sense of Seoul.
After debating where to walk in–and realizing no English menus were outside the many food establishments, we decided to walk in to the next place with the Italy/Ecuador match on TV.
Upon walking in, we were seated and immediately realized we were going to have a difficult time ordering. That’s where Mr. Hyun stepped in. He gave us his recommendation and we were treated to a meal cooked right at our table. It was a lavish spread and Mr. Hyun picked out something good for us. The beef and various toppings wrapped in lettuce, combined with Korean rice, was quite satisfying.
Toward the end of our meal, Mr. Hyun and Mr. Choi invited us to have drinks at a bar after our meal, so though jet-lagged, we went with them. They got to practice their English on us and we were given keen insight into Korean life and culture.
The conversation was wide-ranging–serious, funny and engaging.
It went from Buddhism to prostitution, and many places in between. They shared their observations about North Korea (they can’t visit but want to be unified), as well as their own experiences abroad–Mr. Hyun in Minnesota and Mr. Choi in Australia.
Mr. Hyun’s was entranced by Green Party candidate Ralph Nader during his time in the U.S. He heard him speak during the 2000 U.S. presidential election campaign. He wondered how the U.S. election could turn out the way it did.
Ultimately, we received an offer from Mr. Choi to visit him and his wife at his home. That’s a generous, though not uncommon example, of the random acts of kindness we’ve experienced from the Korean people.
On our way to Itaewon, we had our map out, looking for the right subway connections to get there. An older gentleman tried his best, and then a teenage girl with impeccible English pointed us to where we needed to go, carefully explaining what subway lines to take and where to get off the train.
Once in Itaewon, it wasn’t difficult to find U.S. supporters. And just about all of them ended up at Nashville’s to watch the Korea/Poland match in Group D, widely anticipated here as Korea had never won a World Cup match in 48 years.
We even managed to get interviewed by Daniela Santamaria, a copy editor with the JoongAng Ilbo, which is distributed with the International Herald Tribune here in Korea. She talked to Andy and I, as well as many others in the bar. Andy got to talk about his book and we even mentioned This Week In Soccer, which we hope will be a world-famous show now. Andy also was interviewed by at least two other Korean TV crews, and by Ethan Zohn for his special section on the U.S. Soccer website. Zohn made the rounds, along with the other media outlets to talk with the multitude of die-hard U.S. fans there singing and chanting. And ever since, it’s been one loud, raucous party.
Zohn, while chronicling the U.S. team and fans, is trying to draw attention to using soccer to help fight AIDS in Africa through his website Grassroots Soccer.
Zohn, like the rest of us, spent several hours partying and soaking in the atmosphere provided by the U.S. fans and watching Korea’s historical 2-0 win against Poland, which for the moment, puts them at the top of Group D, pending this evening’s action here in Suwon.
I got a chance to ask Daniela about her experience with soccer, and she said she’s played since she was five. She even had the opportunity to play soccer at a Korean wedding. She didn’t know this at the time, but said it was a great experience, as she was the only female playing as well.
“Everyone I’ve asked is a soccer fan [here in Korea],” Daniela told me. She said there’s no women’s league, and she’s still trying to gauge the popularity of soccer among women, but by the number of TV’s I’ve seen all over the place in Korea tuned into any match, day or night, the enthusiasm of the Korean people for soccer is evident. Taxi drivers are listening to games, street vendors have small TV’s on the matches and nearly every restaurant has a match going. We’re hoping for a good result this evening against Portugal, and no doubt all of Korea will be paying attention. We hope everyone back home will be doing the same.
From the pride of the Korean tailor who showed us his work in his shop–and his international clientele–to the generosity of Mr. Hyun and Mr. Choi in buying us drinks, Mr. Choi inviting us to his home, the enthusiasm of the U.S. fans in Korea and the swelling media interest, it’s been a tailor-made experience for us so far in Korea.
Jimmy LaRoue 12:16 AM