It was a normal Saturday in the bustiling South Korean city of Ulsan. The sun was shining and the beers were flowing, after a lull in the conversation, one of the gang suggested we go to the game. “Tickets are only 5000 won for foreigners” he said. After some deliberation it was agreed. We hopped on the bus and headed to see the K-League game between Ulsan Tigers and Pohang Steelers in the local World Cup stadium.
We were told by others who had been before that the best spot was behind the goal. That is where the ‘Ultras’ hang out, we were assured. We approached the stadium in awe, this was once a venue for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea. It had kept its grandeur, albeit 8 years later. Brazil, Germany and Uruguay to name but three played here during, what was for my generation of Irish football fans, the greatest World Cup. Robbie Keane’s goal against Germany still plays out in my mind.
This was a very different game to those that had preceded it. This was far from a sell-out. Of the 44,000 tickets up for grabs, about 300 were sold. But the advice given to us to go behind the goal was solid, even though the ‘Ultras’ couldn’t have amassed more than 200 souls, they created an atmosphere worthy of any great stadium. Beating drums, screams of “Ulsan Ole Ole Ole” echoed around the empty ground. It took some time to build their trust, but when they saw we were behind their team, they handed over their drums and we all joined in the chorus.
Our ultra status now confirmed, we looked at the opposite end of the pitch where the away ultras were located. A total of five committed boys had made the short trip from Pohang to cheer their team on. They tried to react to our deafening chants, but their efforts fell on empty seats. In front of us two valiant teams played out a 1-1 draw. A few familiar names were on view too.
Luckily through my in-depth knowledge of the 2002 Korean World Cup team I recognised some familiar names, Lee Chun-soo and Oh Bum-suk, playing particularly well. The game wasn’t much to get excited about, and the sight of both sets of players lying flat on the ground as the full time whistle went as if they had played out the game of the decade was a bit off-putting. But there was talent in this team. It had the core of the team that went on to play Chelsea in the World Club Cup several years later having won the Asian Champions League the year previous.
After the game some of our gang went exploring and ended up on the pitch pretending to take penalties. Enter the team’s manager. We were getting ever worried that he was coming to scald us for being on the pitch, but to our surprise he produced a ball and some questions for us. The usual where we were from, the usual ‘not Iceland… Ireland… ahhh Canada’ answers. He left the ball with us and an invitation to watch the team train whenever we wished was also delivered in what was the most surprising on-field conversation I have ever partaken in.
We went to a few other K-League games in different cities after that day, but none compared to our first venture. Our colours were now nailed to the mast. We were Ulsan Tigers now. Even still, 10 years on.