By Bill George
THE magnificent scenes at the end of the contest with Turkey on Saturday in Daegu carried a special significance for South Korea and not just because of the respect the Turks bore for their gallant team and extraordinary fans.
The scenes of celebration were a cryptic reminder of the intrinsic value of sport, its bitter-sweet beauty and its considerable force for good.
Juxtaposed as they were with the evil images on TV of a mini-war at sea between North and South Korea, the scene of footballers expressing mutual respect and admiration for opponents and the adoring public were a reminder that there is a better way.
The naval engagement that cost four South Koreans their lives and killed or wounded up to 30 of their Northern counterparts erased a little of the spirit of goodwill that prevailed on the island of Korea throughout the month of the World Cup.
It was especially poignant that these scenes of destruction occurred just a sling-shot away from the scene of the third/fourth placed play-off, where thousands of South Koreans voiced their admiration for a group of footballers who had done more in a month to raise the profile and self-esteem of a troubled nation than centuries of political and military strife.
The tournament in South Korea was a celebration, a true reflection of the more uninhibited personality of the Korean person as opposed to the Japanese.
The matches were played before fans who showed more enthusiasm for the games and in stadiums that were much more football-sympathetic than some of those in Japan.
The stadium in Seoul, for instance, was a much more suitable venue for a major match because the fans were much closer to the pitch and the atmosphere benefited considerable.
The National Stadium in Yokohama was a cavernous bowl where the gap between players and spectators was too wide for complete enjoyment.
The atmosphere at the memorable Ireland v Saudi Arabia match, for instance, suffered by comparison to that which prevailed at Ireland’s other three matches. Attendance suffered because of ticketing problems but more especially because of the costs involved for those travelling from Europe.
Major teams like France, Spain and Germany — until the final — were not as well supported as they would normally be and this will remain the case as long as FIFA site their finals in the farther reaches of the football world.
Co-hosting of major events is probably a development that will continue — the European finals of two years ago were so successful that you cannot expect the idea to be abandoned.
But sharing between two countries with a joint border was different to the division between two island countries.
The distances involved in trying to get from one venue to another were so considerable as to make commuting extremely difficult and for the media representatives attempting to offer a global view of the tournament, it was impossible.
There were other difficulties not apparent to the public — and indeed of little interest to the public — but media representatives faced horrendous problems in trying to cope with travelling between two countries that did not share a common telephone system, common communications equipment or a common currency.
What was uniformly good, however, was the quality of the playing surfaces that were used. The pitches were magnificent, the dressing-room facilities and general infrastructure of the stadiums were beyond criticism.
The football, also, was not bad. For me the best match prior to Sunday’s final was the Ireland v Spain game; a true sporting contest of enormous impact.
The guillotine-sharpness of the competitive edge was compelling, the quality and pace of the football exhilarating.
The emotional arrest at the final, sad, denouement when Gaizka Mendieta converted his penalty was stunning.
After such a magnificent spectacle and so honest and committed a performance, to have one team’s life’s blood cut off so decisively left one numb in horror.
But the disappointment certain to engulf any team caught in this way is also an intrinsic part of sport and, in spite of ourselves, a major part of its appeal.
The most entertaining contest inevitably involved Brazil who, at their best, were full of all the good things in football. Rivaldo’s gorgeous goal against Turkey, Ronaldinho’s breath-taking run through the heart of England’s defence and the sparkling strike of Rivaldo’s that followed and the second, extraordinary, goal in the final were moments of magic, to be re-lived and enjoyed for time immemorial.
The contest that fizzed and exploded like a box full of crackers was that in which Brazil out-scored Costa Rica 5-2, a match full of reckless attacking play, as both teams sought to out-shine one another with the extravagance of their invention. I did not want it to end.
The World Cup was not as uniformly good in the strictly footballing sense, however, as that of France. Much has been made of the rise of South Korea, Japan, Senegal, Turkey and this has been interpreted as evidence of a new order in world football.
Time might well prove this to be the case but I have my doubts. The depth of football tradition in Italy, Spain, Argentina, Portugal and France is such that these teams will rise again, the lessons of this tournament absorbed, the necessary adjustments in preparation and planning put effectively into place.
Of course the new arriving powers in world football will continue to thrive and develop but the impact of such as USA, South Korea, Japan was facilitated by the extraordinary level of fitness they attained, the depth of their resolve and their wonderful stamina.
It is worth noting that most of the new powers were coached by Europeans and it is here and in South America where the soul of football still resides.
It is true that many of the individual stars of the world game failed to produce here. It is the age of the team, the age when collective strength and tactical awareness ensure that team-work is the essence of good football, the secret of winning good football.
But this tournament was distinguished also, as it always will be, by individuals of genius, individuals whose personal qualities are allied to the requisite competitive spirit so they are distinguished even at the very highest level.
I am thinking of the remarkable Oliver Kahn and the more flamboyant and equally good Turkish goalkeeper, Rustu, of a group of inspired South Koreans like centre-forward Jung-hwan Ahn, centre-backs Hong Myung-bo, Ki-hyeon Seol, the German centre-backs, Thomas Linke and Carsten Ramelow, the Spaniards Valeron and Baraja, the USA’s Claudio Reyna and Brad Friedel.
Damien Duff is as fit as any young player of his age but he showed, with his technique, his guile, wit, that skill and not physical strength and condition is always the final and decisive arbiter.
Robbie Keane and Matt Holland are others who will impact on future World Cups and while Ireland will miss the departed Steve Staunton, Alan Kelly and Niall Quinn, they go with glorious memories and records of substantial achievements to their credit.
Ireland’s impact on this tournament made it special and it will always be used as a reference point for Ireland’s international team as a result.