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Shougat Dasgupta
A Fan’s Notes

K-Pop encounters and a dirge for the fallen masters of tiki-taka

outh Korea and Russia have waited a long time to kick off their World Cup. Brazil and Mexico finished their second games before the Koreans and Russians had even played their first. The vagaries of the freelance journalist's life meant that I happened to be in Seoul last week and so wandered down from my hotel to Gwanghwamun Square, near the south gate of the 14th-century Gyeongbokgung Palace, where tens of thousands of Red Devils had gathered to watch the game on big screens.

April's Sewol ferry tragedy — in which nearly 292 people died, mostly high school students, and about a dozen are still registered as missing — mired the city in grief. The plaza in front of Seoul's City Hall, where up to 100,000 Korean fans would gather to watch World Cup matches, has become a memorial for the victims and some Koreans have argued that any sort of public screening the game would be in bad taste.

The time difference with Brazil helps, with the games being screened live at times when only the jet lagged are awake. Kicking off at 7 a.m., the match with Russia was the most convenient of the group games for fans to coalesce. And so they did in their thousands across the city. Scruples about suitability aside, the World Cup has become a national street party for Koreans. This year, Red Devils fan clubs advised against drinking and "skimpy clothes". Still, Psy, I found out too late, was riding his imaginary horse for the crowds in the Gangnam district before the game. The atmosphere at Gwanghwamun Square was more subdued. Only slightly though, as the red-haired, carefully made-up K-pop princesses to my right popped open some tins of Cass Light.

For that time in the morning, the fans had made an extraordinary effort. Everyone wore red — if it wasn't a Korean shirt, it was Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, even Paris Saint Germain (the away kit); one girl had on a Spain tracksuit. Many had painted their faces. There were flags, drums, banners; at some point someone had seen fit to distribute hundreds of pink-panelled footballs to the crowds.

Unfortunately, in this goal-laden World Cup of fast, adventurous attacking football, the match itself was drab. Expectations were low for a Korean team that squeaked through qualification and continued its unimpressive form in the run-up to Brazil, including a 4-0 defeat to Ghana, so the 1-1 draw with Russia left the crowd largely satisfied. Both goals came from defensive lapses, the Korean opener resulting from the Russian keeper letting an innocuous shot through his upraised gloves to bobble into the net while he stared at his hands bemused, as if looking for the gaping hole through which the ball had gone. Korea remains, as it almost always has, the likeliest Asian prospect to reach the knockout stages, as it has twice since 1986, going as far as the semi-finals in 2002 when it co-hosted the World Cup with Japan.

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Vast urban conurbations — and Seoul, alongside Tokyo, is bigger and busier than almost any city in the world — are lonely, unsentimental places; the wonder of the World Cup is that a goal can still rouse strangers into a moment of pure, unalloyed connection.

Blessed with a relatively undistinguished group, the talented Belgians apart, South Korea has a strong chance to get to the second round in consecutive World Cups. Fit, lean and generally over six feet tall, the Koreans play a fast-moving, technically adroit style, appearing to lack only in composure and decision-making in attacking areas, the Bayer Leverkusen forward Song Heung-min skewing, slicing and skying shots when chances fell his way.

At half time, dancers swarmed onto stage for a bit of synchronised, high energy thrusting. When Korea scored in the second half, the crowd, as they say, went wild. I found myself enveloped in a beer-sodden embrace. Vast urban conurbations — and Seoul, alongside Tokyo, is bigger and busier than almost any city in the world — are lonely, unsentimental places; the wonder of the World Cup is that a goal can still rouse strangers into a moment of pure, unalloyed connection.

brief doffing of the cap to Spain. The World and two-time European champions are going home, chastened, embarrassed. Had Chile put away more of their opportunities, they could have matched the Netherlands' score. The manner of the Spanish defeats has led to plenty of gloating among fans weary of Spanish dominance. Tiki taka (the onomatopoeic Spanish term for the team's percussive passing) is dead, the critics cry in triumph; it was a dull way to play, in any case, negative and defensive with possession as an end rather than a means. Perhaps, the evangelists on the Spanish side, both players and fans, annoyed fans of other teams by insisting that there was a "right" way to play football, a moral way.

But, at their best, Spain and, above all, Barcelona, high priests of tiki taka, were magnificent teams, among a handful of the very best in history. Perhaps these great players were jaded by their success, unable anymore to will the intensity required to press opponents up the pitch. Without the intensity, their high line was a liability, their defence exposed time and again by pace. You could argue, too, about Vicente Del Bosque's selections — why no Koke? David Villa? Juan Mata? — but none of that matters. This is not the end of tiki taka, or possession-based football; accurate pass and move has always been the foundation of good football. It is the end of a fantastic generation of players: men who have won everything with club and country; men who turned underachieving Spain into the most admired and feared footballing nation in the world. And that is a cause for sadness not schadenfreude.

 
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