It has been an amazing and touching experience to see a nation bonding and finding its identity over something as innocuous as a football match.
It has been an amazing and touching experience to see a nation bonding and finding its identity over something as innocuous as a football match. The joy last week of South Korea's first ever victory in a World Cup finals will surely be surpassed if Guus Hiddink's heroes qualify today for the last 16 by at least drawing with Portugal.
It would be churlish just to point out that South Korea's first victims, Poland, are not in the first tier of European nations, as was confirmed by their capitulation against Portugal. Nor indeed can the United States, with whom the Koreans drew their second game, be considered one of the élite of world football.
What cannot be taken away, however, is that after 48 years of near misses, toil, heartbreak and heroic fightbacks, South Korea eventually achieved their first win, and did so with panache. A pre-World Cup draw with England and the defeat of Scotland – the four goals continuing to be shown on TV here, much to my annoyance – gave the locals reason for optimism. Jerzy Dudek, Poland's goalkeeper, remarked in the wake of last Tuesday's historic victory that South Korea could conceivably beat any team in the competition.
I would hardly go that far, but their start has been remarkable and had Lee Eul-Yong not missed a penalty against the US, South Korea would have taken full points.
The first penalty save of the World Cup, by Blackburn's Brad Friedel, visibly rocked the Koreans, as did another brilliant stop from Seol Ki-Hyeon at the start of the second half. The superbly headed equaliser by Ahn Jung-Hwan enabled the vibrant Koreans to take a deserved point. The provocative and poignant speed-skating celebration delighted the locals, but must have had their opponents and their fans squirming in embarrassment.
Clearly the Koreans wanted vengeance for Kim Dong-Sung's perceived injustice in the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, and the players were joined by the fans in pumping their arms like short-track skaters. While understandable, it is the one slight evidence of discourtesy I have encountered in this amiable land.
The euphoria of this first win was tempered somewhat by the result of their neighbours and co-hosts, Japan. However, while Japan's 2-2 draw in Saitama against Belgium featured some creditable individual performances, particularly that of Arsenal's Junichi Inamoto, it did not compare with South Korea's.
While the Belgians – whom I know well because they were in Scotland's qualifying group – are well-organised, competitive and hard to beat, the fact is that Japan's defence was shaky and their offside trap not well co-ordinated, thus costing them victory.
Japan's French coach, Philippe Troussier, used to talk about his "big wave" of midfield players sweeping forward to feed off short passes played into the strikers' feet. It was a pity to see a side with such gifted footballers as Inamoto and Hidetoshi Nakata resorting to endless long balls. There was a marked improvement against Russia, although the Japanese were fortunate to win.
Two competent European sides, Belgium and Russia, thus failed to get the better of Troussier's boys, who have earned four points without exhibiting the style of the Koreans and go into today's game against Tunisia needing only a draw to reach the second stage.
The incredible atmosphere created by 66,108 spectators in Yokohama helped Japan to their historic win over Russia, although statistically they were the poorer side with less possession and fewer shots – nine against 15 – and only one corner to three of their opponents. The collective will of the Japanese should, I am sure, see them through against Tunisia.
If the Japanese go through – and I sincerely hope they do – there will be great celebrations, which could be matched here a few hours later. The streets of Seoul, so deserted during the draw with the US, will again be filled with red-shirted Koreans, who really know how to party. Supporters of England and the Republic of Ireland, who are both immensely popular here, should enjoy joining the locals in their revelry.Reuse content