When Korea Republic hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2002, a hitherto latent passion for football was awakened across the nation, a passion swelled by the stirring exploits of Guus Hiddink and his men. Even now, five years on from those heady days, football fever continues to sweep the Land of Morning Calm. Korea Republic's red-bedecked army of supporters come out in force whenever the Taeguk Warriors are in action, and the Korean championship is firmly established one of the most powerful leagues in Asia .
The hosting of the FIFA U-17 World Cup is but the latest stage in this massive boom in the game's popularity in this part of the world, and has given the people of Korea Republic another opportunity to show their love of the game. And although it missed out on selection as one of the host cities in 2002, no fewer than seven games are being staged in Gwangyang as part of the U-17 extravaganza, just reward for a town famed for its international port, industrial activity and, last but not least, its football club, the Cheongnam Dragons, who attract enthusiastic support from the people of Gwangyang every weekend. One of the Korean first division's most historic clubs, the Dragons endured a lengthy spell in the wilderness before making a return to national prominence this season by lifting the Korean FA Cup.
Town mayor Lee Sung Woong is a regular face in the stands, and the decision to select Gwangyang as one of the venues for a tournament of this scale is a source of particularly happiness for him. "The atmosphere in the town is just amazing," the city's leading dignitary told FIFA.com. "And that's obviously down to the smiling faces of the young players from the nine teams we have welcomed here. Hosting the FIFA U-17 World Cup is a real honour for Gwangyang. Events like this inspire our youngsters and give them dreams and hope."
A committed fan, Mr Lee never misses a game at the Soccer Only Field. Clearly delighted with the entertainment unfolding on the pitch and the wonderful atmosphere in the stands, the magistrate hosted a traditional Korean dinner for the visiting FIFA and Local Organising Committee delegation, and extended his warm thanks to FIFA for inviting Gwangyang to the festival of football. "I would like to thank everyone who has gone to every effort to make this tournament a huge success," he told his assembled guests.
The port, steel and football
Traditionally famed for its port and huge steel industry, the town is also proud of its footballing heritage. "In addition to the port and steel, football is something of a tradition here in Gwangyang," the mayor explained to the gathering. "We have a stadium that is completely given over to football and our training facilities are first-class. We have hosted a number of national sporting events here, and we are now rightly recognised as a footballing town."
And to prove the point, a few days later the FIFA delegation based in Gwangyang joined the mayor and the LOC in swapping their suits for boots for a challenge match that saw Mr Lee run out for the sport's governing body. It was FIFA match commissioner and delegation head Ganesh Thapa who stole the show, however, by scoring both his side's goals in an entertaining 2-2 draw, one of them a spectacular scissor kick.
On Wednesday attention will turn again to the more serious
business of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, with destiny and a place in
the history books awaiting one of the 16 teams remaining in the
competition. Regardless of who comes out on top, Me Lee is clearly
delighted to have had the chance to play his part in the
tournament. "I am delighted to have met these young
players," he concluded, "and I am sure they will go on to
become the stars of tomorrow. I wish all of them every success and
would like to congratulate FIFA once more for this FIFA U-17 World
And luckily for Mr Lee and the people of Gwangyang, there is still plenty of good football for them to enjoy, with Ghana and Brazil, and Nigeria and Colombia in town over the next couple of days for a brace of enticing Round of 16 ties.