GWANGJU, South Korea – Harry Ramsaran is a man on the run – and he won’t be getting much sleep on the road to Yokohama. Harry is a classic World Cup soccer global fan. A member of the Indian diaspora, his grandparents immigrated from the deadly poor province of Bihar to Paramaribo, capital of Suriname. Harry travels around the world selling rice – and he is also head of a Surinamese radio and TV network. But for him the only thing that matters right now is the World Cup.
On Saturday night, after the nerve-racking match where the Korean Red Devils beat Spain on penalties in Gwangju to advance to the semi-finals, Harry was already wrestling with flight schedules to Seoul – and then Yokohama in Japan, where the final is scheduled to be played on Sunday. He had been to the previous day’s quarter-final match in Ulsan – and then traveled by bus to Gwangju. He has already attended almost 30 matches of the month-long tournament so far. And he is definitely intrigued with Korea: “They will go all the way to the finals, yes? Very good for Asia. But are they communist here? Why is everybody wearing red?”
The only essential item Harry did not have in his carry-on luggage was a “Be the Reds!” T-shirt (street price: US$6.50). So he was easy to spot in the sea of red that is now the urban configuration of South Korea in recognition of the team’s red and white playing colors. Everybody is wearing “Be the Reds!” – from the check-in girls of Asiana Airlines to businessmen parading their families in Ssangyong sport-utility vehicles, from Buddhist nuns to grannies waving in the sidewalks and mimicking for startled foreigners the trademark victory uppercut of Korea’s national coach, Dutchman Guus Hiddink.
Harry may have thought the red color was the fruit of insidious brainwashing by Pyongyang Supremo Kim Jong-il. That Great Helmsman Mao Zedong himself may never have seen anything like the sea of red that has engulfed South Korea – even during the Cultural Revolution. That’s the power of football: even President Kim Dae-jung is one of the 120,000 official members of the Red Devils, the cheering club for the South Korean national team. But with the team’s rampaging – and largely unexpected – success, the Red Devils have now come to represent the Republic of Korea itself.
Hiddink’s exploits are already the stuff of legend: how in 18 months he has turned a bunch of robotic Koreans running in thoroughly predictable patterns into an army of four- and five-star generals willing to take risks in the pursuit of victory. It is an absolute first in the history of sports: the Dutch Calvinist work ethic married to a basket of Confucian virtues – with a seductive dash of Buddhism (you have to suffer – come from behind, go to extra time, then penalty kicks – to reach Nirvana).
It’s no wonder all the Korean chaebol and even small and medium-sized companies are now busy applying the Hiddink method of corporate management. South Korea may have copied – and perfected – its industrial and managerial practices from Japan, but Hiddink came just at the right time to offer an alternative to the stale Japanese model.
In the preparatory stages his methods were, as he acknowledged, military-like: he had to harden the troops. But as soon as boot camp was finished, it was time to instill a heavy dose of Protestant ethic: OK guys, now you can have freedom of initiative to act independently, come up with your own decisions, take risks and adjust to particular circumstances. And do not fear: if you act like this, you won’t lose face.
In a traditional and rigidly organized Confucian society such as South Korea, this was nothing less than a cultural earthquake. But Hiddink’s corporate management success is even more spectacular because it mirrors the most intimate desire of every Korean: to win against all odds. And the odds are always immense: Japanese colonialism, the long years of military dictatorship, the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the envied footballing artistry of Portugal, Italy, Brazil and Spain.
Nevertheless, South Korea’s success is marginally about soccer. It’s all about national pride. President Kim Dae-jung said on the record that the victory over Spain to book a semi-final showdown with Germany was Korea’s happiest day since Dangun – the god-king who, according to legend, founded the Korean nation. So if this was the happiest day in 5,000 years of history, one wonders what victory against Germany would mean – let alone winning the final itself. Whatever the outcome, Guus Hiddink – adapting Sun-Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz to Korean soccer – is already the New Dangun.
Everybody in Gwangju was extremely proud to point out that the happiest day – so far – in 5,000 years happened “in the sacred place of Korean democracy”, in the words of a city official. The reference is to the popular but bloody uprising in 1980 against the military junta led by Chun Doo-hwan. For Koreans, the nation is climbing the ladder ever more rapidly: South Korea conquered developed-world economic status, became a democracy, and now is being universally recognized as an outstanding success in a field in which it has never never excelled. During the days of the Asian financial crisis, the world watched Koreans line up to donate gold to save the nation’s finances. Today the world is watching a red wave of Koreans screaming off their heads in joy.
So it’s about national pride – but it’s also about brand recognition.
According to Moon Dong-hoo, general secretary of the Korean Organizing Committee for the World Cup, “The raising of the national image is paramount. According to a report, national brand awareness will increase 50 percent. Through the World Cup, we had the opportunity to introduce 10 cities, as well as Korea, to the world. And as the national team keeps winning, the benefits are invaluable.”
Before Saturday’s match in Gwangju, the Red Devils orchestrated in the stands a gigantic card-flipping of “Pride of Asia” – while hanging huge South Korean flags during the national anthem. Supporters say that since they started spreading the flags the team has not lost.
Around and inside the stadium, hordes of “Korligans” – the newly coined name for the Korean soccer masses – were besieging designated “face-painting zones.” From babies to Confucian masters, everybody was displaying their national pride, mostly through the red-and-blue yin yang emblazoned in the South Korean flag painted on their faces, arms or torsos.
Koreans are reacting not with anger but with extreme sadness as European fingers keep pointing to a conspiracy in that many poor refereeing decisions have benefited the home team. They emphasize that not only did Korea beat almost insurmountable odds to reach the final stages of the World Cup, but also none of the whining powerhouse losers came up with any way of comprehensively beating the Red Devils – be it in extra time or through the penalty lottery.
Italy’s and Spain’s millionaire soccer players may in fact have been rattled by the wall of noise. Korean supporters translate the inherent politeness of their society to the playing field: even their booing of the opposite team is half-hearted. On the other hand, they cheer even throwaway balls – and most girls in Korean stadia busy chirping in their cell phones don’t have the faintest idea of what they are cheering about anyway. The wall of noise ranges from ear-splitting shrill cries to an assortment of shrieks – like it’s the Backstreet Boys down there and not a soccer team. It’s a real Chinese (Korean) torture to be on the stands for two hours deafened by the cries of “Tae-han-min-guk!” (Republic of Korea) and “Oh, pilsung Korea” (Oh, victory Korea). Photographers confirm that the noise level on the pitch is just about the same.
But once again, it’s not all about soccer. The millions of “Be the Reds!” spontaneously gathering in the streets all over South Korea without any rallying cry – political or otherwise – are translating the national zeitgeist. This is all about the pride of overcoming all odds, and achieving international recognition. Yes, for this traditional society it really does matter to leave a good impression on foreigners – and it had to be through a series of victories in the beautiful game that Korea can finally relax and get down to party.
For millions of Koreans, the battle cry “To Yokohama!” is not a dream anymore, it could be real, and Harry Ramsaran, an Asian transplanted in Asia, wouldn’t miss it for the world.