By Mark Gallagher, Seoul
WELCOME to the other side of this World Cup. This isn’t Izumo, that’s for sure. There’s no mayor here talking for his friendly locals. Are there any friendly locals?
There was little in the way of green flags to greet Ireland, instead some serious looking 17 year olds with machine guns, whose facial expressions are masked by sunglasses.
Have we entered some parallel universe where Ibaraki and Yokohama don’t exist? The airport is crawling with these youngsters with guns, termed national security in other counties. South Korea, or Korea as it likes to be known, has taken staging this World Cup seriously in the extreme.
The presence of the American team called for tightened security measures, but this is Ireland.
Fundamentalist terrorists have no gripe against us. We are the boys in green, the best you’ve ever seen. Don’t you know us? We wouldn’t harm a fly. Obviously not.
The guards stand impassively as the team pass them. They never warned us of this in the brochures, truly the other side of this strange World Cup. In many ways, the Korean end of the bargain didn’t exist in Japan. Aside from France opening their disastrous campaign against Senegal, Japanese network TV refused to touch games tainted by Korean hosts.
Only those fortunate to find cable telly in bars witnessed South Korea’s demolition of Poland and USA’s magnificent success against Portugal.
Dancing in the streets of Seoul was consigned to a 30 second segment as attention was once again focused on Nakata or Ono. We never knew, we were never warned that Korea had taken the tournament so seriously.
In every way, Ireland have now reached the big time. In Izumo and, to a lesser extent, in Chiba, the team were isolated. The bright lights of Tokyo were a vicious rumour glimpsed as the team bus journeyed to Ibaraki or Yokohama. They were ensconced in a snug, insular setting, which still held all the cathedrals of capitalism that made Japan famous without the big city feel that may lead the team to distraction.
That has changed with Seoul. The team are now in Asia, they are now in a city with shopping centres bigger than the Liffords and Ballybodens they grew up in.
Seoul has that intangible feel of an Asian city, the smell and claustrophobia that anyone familiar with Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur will know. There is a rush to be somewhere, a restiveness wafting round every street corner. It is Tokyo on a smaller scale, not the laid back, nonchalance of Izumo or even commercial Chiba.
Billboards pronounce the World Cup, the tricolour is just one of 32 flags flying on every street pole, but the cead mile fáilte beneath the flag was a nice touch. Everything is different. This is a hustling, bustling city, the next stage, the other side. Still, if it all becomes too much, the players can retreat to their circular hotel in the centre of Seoul, after a burger from KFC across the road and hope Fraiser or The Simpsons can free the mind of Luis Enrique and Raul for an hour or two.
The thousands of American troops stationed in South Korea, a sad footnote to the war caught so brilliantly by MASH (which the lads can also watch), means English television is one of Seoul’s heavy advantages. They can while away the day without the literal translation of Japanese television, or John Motson in bilingual mode calling Ecuador ‘Ethiopia’.
The journey across the sea of Japan was a turbulent ride, mirroring the roller coaster the squad experienced over the past three weeks. One dared not made a bee line for the toilet for fear of smashing their head against the roof. But, they made it, which gets harder to believe as time goes by.
A delayed flight and some silliness at the baggage carousel ensured the team missed most of yesterday afternoon’s game, which saw Argentina plunge out of the competition and the country itself closer to civil war (wasn’t the fact that they were going to become world champions the only thing knitting that country together?).
Later, South Africa’s relentless attacking streak was punished by a failure to gain a place in the second round, despite all the fans it won. Spain on Sunday. It was never going to be any other way.
We looked and saw how Nadal’s age is no handicap when you have the instinct to know where an attacker is going to go, even an unpredictable South African forward.
They may have Nadal and Hierro, but we have the spirit. The team were in good form yesterday. The spirit just grows and grows, as Niall Quinn says, it is frightening.
Not as frightening as the airport security barely out of school carrying machine guns, but that is where we have reached. Welcome to real Asia. The Korean adventure has just begun but this is a two sided Cup coin, with each side hardly acknowledging the other. Surreal, but true. You might even believe Raul has kissed his last knuckle in this World Cup.