Cheers, tears and fireworks: Korea toasts a famous loss

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The Independent Football

Never in the history of football has a country been so delighted at being knocked out of the World Cup as South Korea was last night.

Never in the history of football has a country been so delighted at being knocked out of the World Cup as South Korea was last night.

There were 500,000 or more people in the great square in front of Seoul's City Hall, and the celebrations began when the final whistle blew. Within moments, fireworks were whistling aloft, home-made confetti rained down and smiling fans were bellowing slogans and hugging one another.

"Great Republic of Korea!" they shouted, and, "It's all right! It's all right!" It was not just because the Koreans had been fairly and soundly beaten by Germany in the Seoul stadium. It was not only that – in contrast with the Italian and Spanish teams they vanquished before their defeat by the Germans last night – they are good losers. The truth was that, even if they had been beaten by a far larger margin than one-nil, Korea and its millions of new football supporters could not lose last night.

To have qualified for the last 16 was a source of pride, and to beat Italy was an unimagined triumph. To defeat Spain, and to go on to the semi-finals, with the final in Yokohama within reach, was an outcome so glorious and unexpected as to make any subsequent defeat trivial. "Korea," wrote The Korea Herald before yesterday's game, "has emerged as the Cinderella of the tournament."

Last night, the ball-gown turned to rags, the coach horses were transformed into rats and the glass coach became a pumpkin again. But no one minded a bit, and in central Seoul the chanting and celebrations were still going on early this morning.

"Korea fought its hardest, and we have no regrets," said Hyun Ji Eun, aged 15, who had Korean flags painted in stylised patterns on her face. "For Korea this has been something completely new; gathering in great crowds together like this, cheering at the matches, talking to strangers. In our hearts, we have already been to Yokohama."

There is no doubt this World Cup will be regarded a sociological turning point for both its co-hosts, a moment when young people cast aside traditional Confucian virtues of restraint to celebrate their teams' successes publicly in unprecedentedly large numbers. In Tokyo, tens of thousands took to the streets of Roppongi and Shibuya after Japan's defeat of Russia; in Osaka, several hundred jumped off a famous bridge. But all of this was eclipsed by the scale of the Korean celebrations.

Half a million people saw the first of the group games on open-air screens across the country. The numbers watching last night's game were estimated at seven million, with 2.5 million in Seoul alone. No one is under any illusion that no more than a small proportion of these were committed football fans. This was less about sport than about pride, unity and Koreans' besetting sense of national insecurity.

"To be honest, I never really used to like football that much," Park Jin Rae, a 22-year- old air stewardess, said. "Compared to basketball, it's long and there aren't so many goals." A 21-year-old woman named Choi Yun Mi said: "This football match is shown all around the world. It's like an international party and Koreans want to take part. It is great to come here and to be together, and happy. In Korea, there has never been anything like this."

Miss Kim, another reveller, was wearing around her upper torso only a Korean flag. "Under the generals," my Korean friend remarked, "she would have been arrested for dressing like that."

Indeed the last time hundreds of thousands took to the streets in front of Seoul's City Hall was a different turning point. Then they were demonstrating for democracy, the People Power movement that took wing in 1987 and forced the ruling generals from power. Last night's tumult over a football match was a measure of how much South Korea has changed in 15 years. Then it was repressed, divided, fearful of and angry towards its rulers, and resentful of its marginal place in the world.

What is so surprising is how relaxed Koreans are in their jubilation. In Japan, a few hundred excited football fans bring out almost equal numbers of police, shooing them off the road and nervously giving instructions by megaphone.

At Seoul's City Hall last night, a single line of police held in check more than 500,000 people. There was little drunkenness, no ill-temper and few tears. Instead, after the fireworks had fizzled out and the cheering died, the crowd started clearing the rubbish and preparing for a return game at the World Cup in Germany 2006.