Our friends from the north

December 14, 2006
By Steve Wilson

A trip to the Al-Rayyan stadium, far beyond the outskirts of Doha and capital of the oil rich Gulf State of Qatar, promises about as inauspicious an occasion as could be imagined on even the sparsest of sporting calendars.

SoccernetBeneath the floodlights of the Al-Rayyan stadium 'a trio of fetching Korean go-go dancers' meet the one and only Steve Wilson, and his trusted cycling jacket.

A long, landmark free drive along a dusty road that stretches nowhere except into desert, and eventually Saudi Arabia, cannot fail to dull the senses. Yet those willing and able to make the journey on an uncommonly rainy and windswept evening in the Middle East this week, were rewarded with a tangible reminder of the capacity of this simple past time to temporarily lift the soul.

The reason for the trip was to watch the quarter-final of the 15th Asian Games, that Doha, despite customary fears over the city's readiness for a showpiece event, is hosting with genuine bravura.

The reason for its fascination was the match-up that the draw had produced. Straight after Iran had dispatched China 8-7 on penalties in the same stadium, tournament favourites Korean Republic were to kick-off against their occasional friends from the north, the much demonised Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea.

The recent antics of Kim Jong Il's insular communist regime have strained already flimsy relationships with most western democracies. The trumpeted testing of nuclear weapons by North Korea has confirmed their rogue state credentials and, possibly having the greatest reason to fear a nuclear powered neighbour, relations between Seoul and Pyongyang have been frosty in the aftermath.

Football, it has been observed, at times can act like war without weapons; a proxy for conflict. A grudge laden derby match had been predicted. But it did not work out that way.

The match itself was as full blooded as knockout football should be. The tackles flew and, despite the South's obvious technical superiority, it sustained a commendable competitiveness even as two goals in three first half minutes, the second a 30 yard piledriver from Yeom Ki Hun, took the game out of North Korea's reach. A third was added by Jung Jo Gook after the break and South Korea, conducted by veteran of their romantic if fortuitous run to the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup, Lee Chun Soo, ran out as justified winners.

The action on the pitch, then, ran to a predictable if entertaining conclusion. Yet the real intrigue was to be found in the stands of a three quarters empty stadium.

Unusually for the competition, and perhaps a nod to the frosty relationship endured by the two states, what fans were present had been segregated by a chicken wire fence familiar to visitors of many ageing European grounds. And this thin dividing line threw up a contrast as fascinating and absolute as does the border they share.

SoccernetPermission to clap? The organised fans of Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea.

On one side stood the massed ranks of North Korean fans, a study in uniformity. Each man - for they were all men - assiduously stuck to his allotted place on the stand, giving an eerie order to their collective appearance. They clapped in unison, they cheered as one, they banged together simple wooden blocks in precise synchronisation.

One could have been forgiven for thinking a time machine rather than a turnstile had been used to gain entrance to their stand. Dour, dark, old fashioned suits and ties were the order of the day.

Like a scene from a grainy old news reel of football matches past, these fervent and boisterous supporters, cajoled, it is an understatement to say, by a couple of similarly attired rabble-rousers at the front, one minus his front teeth, backed their team to the hilt. And from the first whistle to beyond the last.

Every kick - every single kick - by their team saw the conductors implore the crowd to make noise, and make noise they duly did. As did those camped on the other side of the fence.

Brash and colourful, though predominantly in white thanks to the distribution of incongruously titled 'Red Tigers' T-shirts and inflatable clackers, the South Koreans were an altogether more mixed lot. Men and women, boys and girls, many wearing expensive designer gear, were likewise egged on by self appointed and enthusiastic band leaders - though in this case fresh faced teenagers with requisite face paint, drums and bandanas and a trio of rather fetching go-go dancers.

The contrast could not have been more pronounced had one group come dressed as cowboys and the other Indians (though one of the South's more voluble fans was inexplicably wearing a full cow suit).

An intense wall of sound from both sides carried those present through the game. Those from the South had more reason to cheer, obviously, but the northern contingent could teach many fickle fans about loyalty and backing their team as, even in defeat, they gave their players one hell of an ovation. Cynics will scoff that they were probably obliged to stay loyal under threat of some unspeakable consequence if not, but no matter, they sang their hearts out and then some.

Throughout the game the two sets of fans, bar raising the volume to make themselves heard above the other, did not even acknowledge their adversaries. Until, that is, both teams came and took two bows, one for each set of fans.

SoccernetAnd here's the impact democracy can have on football fans.

It is hard to say who started it and that is not important anyway. Someone did and, slowly at first, then gathering pace and numbers, where there had been two competing sets of voices there became one.

There was no choreography, no preordained show for the cameras, as had been the case when the two countries had marched as one during the Games' opening ceremony.

The dividing fence became blurred as both sets of supporters broke out into a mutual song and began swaying together. The words, a young South Korean girl explained, were those of unity, where all Koreans are one family; brothers and sisters.

It didn't mean that much in the scheme of international relations, still less the impact of the game itself on what is at best a competition for the lesser nations of world football (to underline this South Korea have since been eliminated by Iraq). But everyone who was at that game left smiling and shaking hands.

Chose you own trite cliché if you like, but moments such as this are becoming rarer and rarer in modern football and should be savoured.

Getting off the beaten track has never felt so worthwhile.


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