Ilove the World Cup. But I also love sleep, and lordy, here in South Korea, with the World Cup a hemisphere away in Brazil, the hours have been brutal. The 1 a.m. games—alright, go to bed really late. Seven a.m. games—OK, get up really early. Four a.m. games? Blargh! Get up WAY early or go to bed WAY late. Yeah, I know you can watch the replays, but self-imposed internet blackouts are difficult for a web-addict like myself. And of course, knowing the score already renders the whole affair drama-less. Hey, it’s once every four years, right? When your team is playing, suck it up and watch it live. It’s the beautiful game, even if you’re not gonna look too beautiful with bags under your eyes from lack of sleep.
But whaddaya do when you have not just one but THREE must-watch games on the slate? Here was my dilemma last Sunday night: South Korea vs. Algeria—4 a.m.; U.S.A. vs. Portugal—7 a.m.. Those were must-sees. Gotta watch the teams from both my homeland and my adopted home. But then: 1 a.m. Russia vs. Belgium. Not a great match-up, but Busan, where I live, has a seedy, skanky Russian night club area called Texas Street that would be PERFECT (so I thought) for watching the Ruskis play. The only possible conclusion: burn the candle at three ends and stay up all night. U.S.A.! U.S.A.! DAAAAY-HAN MIN GUK! and, um, GO BELGIUM! WIN ONE FOR N.A.T.O.! FUCK PUTIN! Or something like that.
Here was my Busan World Cup all-night itinerary:
ROUND 1: Russia vs. Belgium, Texas Street
ROUND 2: South Korea vs. Algeria, Haeundae Beach
ROUND 3: U.S.A. vs. Portugal, Eva’s Ticket Bar & Restaurant
Texas Street, tucked along a back street across from Busan Station, has seen better days. And better nights. It’s a strip of neon-pulsing hostess bars, Russian and Philippine restaurants and karaoke rooms, love motels, and shops selling swag favored by U.S. or Russian navy / merchant marine dudes —mainly lots of nylon track suits, cheap leather jackets, and replica sports jerseys. When I first came to Busan in 2002, T-St. was on the wane even then, but it was still fun on occasion. For the cost of a lady drink (about 10 bucks) you could have a fairly interesting chat with a Russian bargirl, some of them quite beautiful Korean-Russians from Sakhalin Island. Just as long as you didn’t get carried away and buy, say, TEN lady drinks, and then try to pay the exorbitant barfine to have the girl leave the bar with you, and pay an inflated love motel room charge, and then have the girl drug you while a Russian gangster pimp cleaned out your wallet, you were fine!
Once in a while, the strip can still fizz and pop with energy when a big U.S. naval vessel is in port, but these days, the navy boys prefer to party out in Haeundae. Most nights the strip is more sad and desperate than sleazy and dangerous. With Russia flush with Gazprom loot these days, the bargirls are mostly Philippinas now, and they cluster in the clubs’ doorways trying half-heartedly to lure in the occasional pair or trio of Russian sailors while horrific disco-synth pop or a sloppy Philippine cover band chugs away inside.
Still—I thought I might find a dozen or so Russians psyched about the World Cup. Their team was very much alive heading into their second game against Belgium, having tied South Korea in their opener. Belgium, the sexy dark horse of the Cup, was heavily favored, but hey, it was only Belgium! Plus, the geo-political implications—N.A.T.O. vs. Warsaw Pact, East vs. West, Russia vs. Euro Zone—were moderately juicy. I don’t think the Belgian players were telling themselves “Let’s win one for the Ukraine’s pro-European integration political factions!” to psych themselves up. And I think Belgian fans were probably too polite to make big signs of a giant anthropomorphic Belgian waffle fucking Putin in the ass, but it was fun to think about, anyway.
I arrived at Texas Street via taxi at about 12:45, and the street was fairly dead. Everything was open as usual, the Philippinas still whistling and calling after you as you walked by Club Manilla, Borakai, Baikal, and Hollywood, but there were precious few customers. I poked my head in a few places, but the clubs didn’t even have TVs, or if they did, they were showing goofy karaoke videos. I walked up and down the strip a few times, listening for the tell-tale sound of TV sports announcers and stadium cheering. The previous weekend up I was up in Itaewon, Seoul, and right before the 7 a.m. England-Italy game, you could hear all the TVs and English fans a good 100 meters away. But here on Texas St.—nothing. I asked a few bored-looking Russian women sitting outside a karaoke bar if people were watching the game any place in particular, and they just shrugged and pointed vaguely up the street. Finally a Korean man standing outside a small restaurant who had noticed me walking to and fro asked me what I was looking for.
“World Cup. Football,” I said.
He motioned me inside. “Yes, we have TV. It’s on now,” he said. I looked inside the restaurant. Empty. Well, I thought, I’ll pop in for a beer and watch for awhile and see if anybody else comes in.
The game kicked off, and the Belgians quickly took control, looking fast and skilled. The Russians were clearly packing everyone behind the ball, playing for a draw. I sipped a Bud and watched. After about ten minutes, three Russians came in and sat down. They ordered some fried shrimp and Coronas and looked at the TV with half-interest. One of them was bigger as well as older than the other two—everything about his physical appearance can be summed up with the word “thick” except for his thinning hair. One of the younger ones wore a black and gold track suit, and the other one a colorful floral-print shirt open three buttons. The Korean owner engaged them in some halting conversation in English—they were in off a cargo ship and would be leaving late the following night. The Korean asked some World Cup questions—will Russia do well? Are you excited about Russia hosting the Cup in 2018?—and was answered by shrugs or mono-syllabic yes/no grunts. I’d intended to actually do some real-live journalism down here—you know, interview people and all that. But these dudes seemed like the three most unapproachable human beings on the planet. Even in the midst of one of the most unifying public events in the world—an event where strangers from vastly different nationalities, cultures, and religions could instantly converse and bond over—I found myself too damn shy/intimidated to talk to three Russian sailors about the World Cup. The first half finished scoreless, with hardly any quality chances from either side. I finished my beer, drank the first of three Bacchus D’s I had in my backpack, paid and left.
I decided to watch the 2nd half at the Kuritza Grill (In Cyrillic: КУРИЦА ГРИЛ), a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that those in-the-know will say has the best Russian grub on T-Street. It was still open, and they were showing the game on the Russian satellite feed. A back corner table was occupied with three middle-aged Russians and three veteran (read: older) Russian hostesses up from one of the nearby clubs. None of them seemed to be watching the game. Every 45 seconds or so one of the six went out into the stairwell to smoke.
At another table three younger Russians sat drinking beers, and they actually seemed to be into the game—mostly cursing and shaking their heads as Belgium quickly snuffed out any semblance of a Russian attack. I ordered a plate of the joint’s fantastic vareniki, the Russian-Ukrainian potato-stuffed boiled dumplings (more or less what Americans know as pierogi.) They came oozing with butter, along with some slabs of neutron-star dense pumpernickel bread, and three sides of pickled carrots, cabbage, and seaweed. Stodge supreme. Seriously: if you’re in the Busan Station area, check this place out—2nd floor, above Club California. It is очень хорошо, “real horrorshow” as Alex from Clockwork Orange would say.
As I wolfed down the vareniki, two Russian hostesses in short skirts and elaborately done-up hair came in. They were in their mid-30s easily, but they so far had managed to stave off that swift brutal potato-fication that turns Russian women from lithe ballerinas to hulking babushkas seemingly overnight. Unlike every other Russian I’d seen this night, they were actually excited and energetic rather than bored and tired. They ordered soup with pelmeni (small meat dumplings) and watched the game with genuine fervor—cheering and groaning and shouting Slavic exhortations at the TV. One of them noticed me, flashed me a smile and asked me something in Russian. It happens from time-to-time here on Texas St. My peoples are Ukrainian Jew / Polish, so I can pass for Eastern European.
“Sorry, I’m American,” I said.
She and her friend laughed like it was the funniest thing in the world. “Oh! Sorry!” she said, and turned back to the game.
The game wore on, still scoreless, but the Belgians’ superior talent and depth was clear. Even with Everton star Lukaku subbed out, the Duvel Drinkers went on run after run, the Russian defenders looking increasingly desperate and tired (sort of like Texas St. itself). There was a sense of inevitability in the air. Finally, in the 88th minute, substitute Divock Origi, a 19year-old Belgian-Kenyan, scored the game’s only goal, locking up a spot for Belgium in the knockout stage. The two women immediately paid and left, and the other customers, to quote Robert Frost, “as they were not the ones dead, turned to their affairs.” With a belly full of Russian starch and carbs, I hailed a cab to Haeundae.
I had no idea what kind of scene to expect on the beach. There was talk of toning down the World Cup cheering this year in deference to the national mood of mourning over the Sewol tragedy. City Hall Plaza in Seoul is now the site of a huge Sewol memorial and wasn’t being used as a mass game-watching spot. In Busan, the usual multiple big-screen locations had been nixed except for Haeundae. I’d been to Korea’s opening game against Russia four days earlier, at 7 a.m., and a sparse crowd of maybe 500 showed up to watch the game in a light drizzle. Kind of sad.
However, getting out of the cab by the Grand Hotel, I could see a sea of light-up plastic devil horns glittering in the distance, and I knew the fans had come out in force. Getting closer, I saw maybe seven or eight thousand supporters, mostly college kids, extending maybe 100 meters in front of the video screen. A group of drummers sat up front. The cloudy skies had cleared up, and a quarter-moon rose over Dalmalji Hill. The devil horns glittered like a Macy’s Christmas display, and a jubilant, expectant buzz filled the air. Algeria! How could we not beat Algeria?! We are 15th and they are 46th in GDP per capita! Mike, a Canadian friend of mine, wandered down from his nearby apartment and joined me.
The two national anthems played, and I gotta say it—the Korean fans there on the beach get a solid F for not singing along. Inexcusable. I expect more from a nation of about one billion karaoke rooms. A lot of the crowd didn’t even stand up. Hey, the South Korean anthem isn’t great, but it’s not bad. For one thing, it’s short (at least the part that gets played at sporting events), and the vocal range required by the melody is very accessible. Come on, Koreans! In retrospect, this “eh, can’t-be-arsed” attitude of the crowd was a dark harbinger of the game itself.
At the opening kickoff a solid cheer went up, pop-concert lights pulsed and danced above the screen, and the drumming crew started a steady, propulsive beat. From the start, I noticed something strange about the Korean team. They looked slow, lethargic, lackadaisical. What was going on? Korea’s national soccer team since the magical 2002 run always featured balls-out hustle, grit, and determination. But now, it was the other team, Algeria, that was looking determined and purposeful, hard-working and passionate. Plus, they were much bigger and stronger. Uh-oh.
Sure enough, in the 26th minute, Algerian striker Islam Slimani collected a nice aerial through-ball and marched straight in and scored, Korean defenders on both sides of him like Korean police escorting a high school senior late for the 수능. The crowd made a little gasp/cry and then went silent. Only a few people left, but you could feel the hope draining away like air from a punctured tire. I was at Seoul City Hall plaza for the Nigeria and Uruguay games in 2010, where Korea had conceded early goals. Neither the team nor the crowd seemed to give up then. Korea team fighting! They still believed, then. That team, of course, had a starting Man-U midfielder at the top of his game on the pitch. Now, they had bunch of K-leaguers and Premier League scrubs. Son Heung-min, who had had a decent season for Bayer Leverkusen in the Budesliga, seemed like a nice player, but he was getting bullied by the hulking Algerian defenders. Hope was in scant supply.
Barely two minutes later, Korean goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong took a bad angle on a corner and Rafik Halliche headed home a second goal. A small but noticeable segment of the crowd decided “game over” and stood up and filed off toward the main road. Before many of them had even shaken off their beach blankets, a botched clearance and shoddy marking led to a THIRD Algerian goal, and this time a good 30% of the crowd called it quits. Mike was disgusted by the surrendering fans, but hey, it was 5 a.m. on a week day for these kids. Those smart phones and caramel macchiatos weren’t gonna sell themselves, were they?
At halftime I drank another Bacchus D and Mike sipped a beer as I told him about the scene (or lack thereof) on Texas Street for the Russia—Belgium game. We reflected on the 2006 and 2010 WC experience in Korea. This definitely seemed like the end of an era—or the beginning of a new one. Even though the team didn’t advance in 2006, they still notched a win and a tie in their first two games before losing a tough match to the Swiss. Now, with Belgium looming, the prospect of going out with a single crummy point from the group stage was quite likely.
But then the Taeguk Warriors came out in the 2nd half with a bit of fire. Son made a few nice moves and then nut-megged the keeper for a goal. The remaining crowd whooped and fist-pumped and high-fived each other. Mike commented that scoring between the legs of the goalie should count for two goals. Actually, if Korea just managed to lose by only one goal, they would reduce their odds to advance from well-nigh impossible to just unlikely. And if they came back to tie?! I flashbacked to the 2005 Champions League final between Liverpool and AC Milan. I was watching it with a knot of Liverpool freaks at the old O’Brien’s, a dive-y Busan basement Irish bar, and I went home around 4:00 a.m. with AC Milan up 3-0 at the break—and ended up missing one of the great comebacks in sports history, not to mention the scene of my Scouse friends literally dancing on and diving off the bar. Hell, I was staying up for the U.S.A. game anyway, so I wasn’t going anywhere. The eastern horizon was beginning to pale and turn the faintest shade of apricot.
The optimism was short-lived. Algeria took advantage of the Korean team pressing forward and notched a fourth. Korea got one back towards the end, but could get no closer than 4-2. Now, they would have to beat the much-better Belgians by at least 2 goals, and hope Russia either tied or beat Algeria by one goal. Not gun’ happen. The Republic of Korea was toast-tuh. Still it was a lovely morning on the beach, and I wasn’t feeling too bleary. One more game to go! Mike decided sleep was more important than cheering on the Yanks, and walked back to his home and sleeping wife up in Haeundae New-Town. I headed to the just-opened subway for the trip to the Kyungsung / Pukyung University area and my last stop of the night / morning.
Eva’s Ticket is a large bar / restaurant / live-music venue in one of Busan’s main university areas, and is one of the centers of the waygook scene down here. Tom and Andrew, two old Busan friends, opened the place at 6:30 a.m. and were providing a great ‘murican breakfast fry-up as well. There were about 20 of us there, decked out as best we could with some flags, red-white-and-blue beer cozies, U.S. team jerseys, and toy aerial drones (OK—I made that last one up. But seriously—instead of those cheap World Cup replica trophies, U.S. fans in Brazil should hold up toy predator drones and wave them back and forth. It’s what most of the world associates with us, anyway. And you’ll never . . . drone strike . . . alone!)
It’s a cliché at this point, but it bears repeating—rooting for America in soccer is fun because WE’RE the underdogs for once. We’re the plucky, scrappy, gritty upstarts. How much fun is it, really, to root for America in Olympic basketball, with Lebron James dunking over skinny, terrified Croatians? You can admire us, sure, but can you root for us? The U.S. men’s soccer team, by contrast, has shown the rest of the world the qualities, perhaps, that made us a great nation in the first place, instead of the fat, lazy, arrogant, entitled face we present to the world in most other arenas. I love it that the rest of the world is saying, “Would you look at these guys? They never say die!” It swells my heart to bursting when English friends, for whom football is interwoven in their DNA, people whose own national team they savagely mock, actually praise our team, actually root for our team!
National Anthem time came, and we put the Koreans at Haeundae to shame by positively belting out the Star-Spangled Banner, probably making the milk delivery ladies passing by outside to look up and wonder 왜? The TV showed a close-up of U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s handsome Teutonic mug actually singing too, which filled me with a real sense of pride and confidence. Klinsmann was a former German soccer star who’d been living in America for several years simply because . . . he liked it. (Read: we don’t give a shit about soccer, so nobody recognized and bothered him.) This was the same guy who had already rebuilt Germany’s powerhouse program from the ground up. Whatever Portugal would throw at us, Klinsmann would anticpate it and figure out a counter.
Actually, It was no secret what Portugal would throw at us. Mainly, one incredibly fast, incredibly strong, incredibly skilled underwear model with a new Vanilla Ice haircut named Cristiano Ronaldo. Of course I hated him, because duh. But could this guy—neck-and-neck with Messi for the best player in the world over the last five years or so—beat us all by himself? Just ask Sweden.
Kickoff, and oh no! Five minutes in, Geoff Cameron’s sliced clearance put the ball right on Portuguese striker Nani’s feet and Bam! 1-0 Portugal. Cameron plays for Stoke City in the Premier League. I was going to make a joke about, hey! Stoke City! But I checked the table and Stoke finished 9th this year—pretty respectable. They even have Peter Crouch and his dancing robot routine. If you think about it, it’s much funnier to joke about U.S. players with tiny 2.5 million dollar transfer fees, and “starring” for teams like the Columbus Crew and Sporting Kansas City.
We nervously munched on eggs, bacon, and pancakes as the U.S. started pressing forward while Portugal sat back and defended—the opposite of the Ghana game. At the half it was still 1-0, but we were all fairly optimistic. One thing that was not optimistic—my stomach. The late-night vareniki and all the Bacchus D’s were making a spirited Ronaldo-like power-run through my intestinal track. Let’s just say I missed the first five minutes of the 2nd half.
The 2nd half—Jesus. Jermaine Jones’ equalizer was the kind of goal I’ve been waiting 25 years to see from a U.S. player—a run-of-play unstoppable blast from outside the penalty area. A laser, a heat-seeking missle, a net-breaker. What a cracker from Jermaine Jones! shouted Ian Darke, the typically classy Brit announcer on ESPN. First rule of broadcasting soccer games: the announcer must be a Brit. Scottish or Irish also acceptable. Also acceptable—watching the Spanish-language Univision feed for the legendary Andres Cantor’s 3-minute supernova GOOOOLLLL! calls.
Then, in the 82nd minute—YEEESSSSS! The thoroughly kick-ass Clint Dempsey scored a more typical by-any-means-necessary U.S.A. goal—he ran right through a little chip-cross from Graham Zusi and bellied it into the net. Cue: Ode to Joy. Actually, don’t cue Ode to Joy. That’s the Euro zone’s official anthem. Portugal is in Europe. Fuck Europe. Cue: some Toby Keith shitball cornpone country anthem. God, I love sports!
But then, as we all know, with thirty fucking seconds left, Michael Bradley horribly botched a trap and gave up the ball at midfield and Ronaldo’s perfect six-pack abdominals, in six separate voices, collectively announced, “FUCK the U.S.A.!” and Mr. Underwear Model launched an all-galaxy class, inch-perfect cross to a streaking and inexplicably open Silvestre Varela, who headed it home. Every one of us at the bar uttered some version of WHAT THE FUCK! and then went silent. If a tie is like kissing your sister, as the saying goes, this tie was more like forced incest with your sister at gunpoint in front of the Imperial Japanese Army. God, I hate sports.
I left Eva’s Ticket and hailed a taxi, slightly dazed from the previous two hours’ emotional cuisinart: No!! Yes!!! YESSSS!!!! NOOOOOO!!!!! I ran through the various group-stage scenarios for the U.S. in my bleary head. Really, the only thing that saved this game from being an all-time gut-punch was that the U.S. still had a very good chance to advance even with a loss to Germany. Still, it wasn’t until after that Germany game when the nauseous we-blew-it feeling abated somewhat, as the final group results (Germany 1st, U.S. 2nd) ended up more or less where it would have had the U.S. averted that screamingly awful last-second breakdown against Portugal.
Those of you reading this now know that both the U.S. and South Korea are gone. Korea of course died a miserable group-stage death, while the U.S. lost a thrilling 2-1 game to the far superior Belgians in the round of 16. It’ll be a long wait for the 2018 Cup in Russia. European fans at least have the Euro Cup in two years, and even South Korea can look for redemption in the Asia Cup next January in Australia. European fans tend to scoff at us Yanks who only get excited at the World Cup. It’s true, I don’t have club team I’m passionate about—I tend to follow whatever English teams have Americans on them, which these days mainly means Everton (Go Tim Howard!) I’m more a fan of the sport, trying to catch the marquis Premier League match-ups and big Champions’ League games on Korean TV. But nothing beats the World Cup, and when the winner is crowned next week, I’ll feel like a kid with the day- after-Christmas blues.
It was a fun night, even though all three games ended in a pile of shite for the fans I was with—the Russians, the Koreans, and us Americans. In the taxi home, sure, I was tired, but not catatonically so. The whole night I’d drank only two beers and three Bacchus D’s, so I wasn’t hung over. I’d joked with some friends about finding some Ritalin or even something stronger to help me stay up all night (I swear, if folks from Immigration are reading this, I was JOKING), but in the end all I needed was the thrill of the beautiful game itself—el jogo bonito. They say soccer is a religion in much of the world. On this night, it was a drug as well.