Thursday, Jun 06, 2002
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SAITAMA (JAPAN) June 5. The ears are still singing, the neck hairs are still on end, the mind is still well and truly boggled.
Asian-style soccer mania washed over the World Cup when fans of co-hosts South Korea and Japan revealed the astonishing intensity of their passion for the game on Tuesday.
Those in the stadiums at Pusan and Saitama witnessed a unique brand of ordered hysteria that taught the traditional soccer hotbeds of Europe and South America a thing or two about supporting your team.
To the uninitiated, it was an intoxicating, uplifting experience as wave after wave of positive energy pulsed around the arenas.
The fans' fervour communicated itself to the players on the pitch, and South Korea's 2-0 win over Poland and Japan's thrilling 2-2 draw with Belgium have dispelled fears that the home teams at Asia's first World Cup could get steam-rollered.
Pusan stadium was a cauldron of deafening noise throughout South Korea's impressive victory. As a result, the home side appeared to have far more energy than the Poles.
The locals had been counting down to the game from the day six years ago they were awarded co-hosting rights. Most of those lucky enough to have tickets ensured they were safely in their seats at least an hour before kick-off.
Performing almost in perfect unison, the 50,000 supporters created a sea of red, bobbing and swaying to the tune of the lead drummers, and roaring out their chants.
Unlike most European and South American crowds, their vocal support was not dependent on incidents on the pitch, though they managed to crank up the volume still higher when their team threatened.
The noise reached a tumultuous peak after 26 minutes when Hwang Sun-Hong volleyed in the opening goal.
``We tried to warn the players what to expect, to prepare for such noise, but it was still difficult,'' said Poland coach Jerzy Engel.
``It's completely different to Europe where they support you when you have chances. Here it is all the time. The crowd gave the Koreans power.''
Korean coach Guus Hiddink, or ``Hiddink Guus'' as he is known by the public address announcer, said, ``I have to thank the fans. They were terrific, wonderful, and they share in this historic victory.'' Korea's win was its first in six World Cup finals.
``It is a mutual road, the crowd to the players and the players to the crowd,'' added Hiddink who, when coach of the Netherlands, was blessed with one of the noisiest and most colourful sets of supporters in the European game.
The stadium in Saitama, built to resist an earthquake of up to seven on the Richter scale, was shaken to its foundations as Philippe Troussier's Japan recovered from 1-0 down against Belgium to lead 2-1 before being pegged back to 2-2.
Drummers beat the crowd into a frenzy as cries of `Nippon, Nippon' reverberated around the stadium. The giant blue Japanese shirt they unfurled summed up the mood, ``Welcome to blue heaven''.
At the same stadium two days earlier, England's fans had provided their own loyal brand of deep-throated vocal backing to the team in a disappointing 1-1 draw against Sweden.
Their mood, though, became more subdued as they realised Sweden was growing stronger as the game wore on.
Whether out of naivety or pure exuberance, the Japanese supporters weren't going to be quelled by the fact that, in the first half against Belgium, their team was playing appallingly. Reuters
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