A Mad Fan’s Diary 2013.12.12: My Country ‘Tis of Me

“Yo guys, did you see the draw?”
“What draw?”
“Yo the world cup draw, it just ended!”
“Dude I am so pumped, we got Belgium, Russia, and Algeria, that’s TOTALLY DOABLE. I’m so amped right now.”
“Oh sweet – wait, who’s we?”
“Korea bro, who the fuck else do you think I was talking about?”
“I thought you were talking about the US?!”
“Nah the US is fucked, they got Germany, Portugal, and Ghana.”
“Why did you put your hands on my shoulders?! I’m not Korean?!”
“Dude I wasn’t talking to you I was talking to the Korean bros at the table, you just happened to be sitting in front of me.”


I know that a lot of Americans don’t care about soccer, yadda yadda yadda, but yes, the World Cup draw was last Friday, and yes – it was a big deal. Like the Olympics, the World Cup only comes once every four years, and the draw goes a long way in determining the fates of all those involved, so sitting and waiting for the results of the draw on Friday was a really stressful experience. One that ultimately ended up working out for Korea, and not so much for the United States.

So in case you aren’t familiar with the process or don’t know how it works, the upcoming World Cup finals that are happening this coming summer consist of 32 teams, which are divided into 8 different groups for round robin play, and the top two teams from each group advance on to the round of sixteen single elimination knockout stage.

Those initial 8 groups are decided by the World Cup draw, in which all the nations that qualified for the final are separated into four pots: Seeded teams (the top 8 ranked Fifa teams), African/South American teams, American/Carribean/Asian Teams, and the European teams. The groups are selected by picking one team from each of this pots.

So what does this mean for any given country? It means you basically want to draw the weakest teams possible from each region so you can get out of the round robin stages and into the knockout phase. A ‘good’ World Cup draw means that you drew some of the weaker teams from the three other pots, while a ‘bad’ draw would be one where you end up stuck with some of the strongest teams in the world.

So on Friday, the latter happened to the United States, who drew Germany and Portugal (you guys *have* heard of that Cristiano Ronaldo guy, right?) and Ghana, while Korea drew a challenging, yet feasible group of Belgium, Russia, and Algeria.

And I’m ecstatic.

I mean, it’s not like I don’t want the US to do well, but had Korea drawn an impossible group (the commonly used term is “Group of Death”), it would have ruined my summer, no question. My friends, Twitter followers, and regular readers (if you’re actually out there) know how much passion I have about the Knicks, but Korean soccer is like, a whole different level and scale of sports fanaticism for me.

Ever since the 2002 World Cup, the pride I have for the Korean national team has pretty much been synonymous with my pride in my Korean heritage really; I love nothing more than seeing the team excel on the world stage, and its individual players perform in the world’s best professional leagues (Park Ji-sung comes to mind).

I guess that phenomenon applies to Korean athletes in general, actually.

This past MLB season, for example, featured the rookie campaign of Korean pitcher Ryu Hyunjin’s career, which I followed with close attention – even flying out to LA for a Dodgers game (let’s ignore that Girls’ Generation was in attendance singing the national anthem that day). Even now, in the offseason, Cincinnati Reds Korean Outfielder Choo Shin Soo is a free agent, likely to command a $100 million to $140 million dollar contract from whatever team he signs with, and I’ve been searching for news on the subject on a daily basis. To be honest with you, I never really follow baseball that closely, nor do I have a solid grasp of the way the MLB’s CBA and salary cap rules work — but I can guarantee you I’ll know where Choo ends up the moment he signs (sadly, it doesn’t look like it’ll be the Yankees).

Probably an even better example of this unconditional Korean Athlete fandom phenomenon is the Olympics… Whenever the Summer or Winter games roll around, it’s never really America’s starlets that I’m paying attention to, but the events and athletes that might result in a gold medal for Korea. While the world was watching Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt make history, my eyes were squarely fixed on random, more fringe-y sports like Archery, Fencing, Shooting, Rhythmic Gymnastics, and Badminton.

I don’t know, I guess in these situations I have never really feel like the United States needs my support. I get how this might sound unpatriotic, but in Korea vs. US sports competitions, I’ll take Korea every time. Perhaps I’m taking my status as an American for granted, and I suppose it’s a testament to the freedoms we enjoy in the United States that I have the luxury to place heritage over nationality, but I just don’t feel the need to support American athletes the same way I’m do for Koreans… Even when they’re facing off head-to-head — like, seriously, there are few Olympians that I have hated more than Apollo Ohno; every Winter Olympics, I just wanted the Korean skaters to annihilate him.

Stepping back, it’s kind of funny to see myself operating this way. And I’m fully aware that I’m way at the extreme Korean end of the spectrum here, but I’d be interested to see where other Korean-Americans fall on the general subject. I think my age demographic in particular is an interesting one because the 2002 World Cup (in which Korea stunned the world by taking on some of the best teams out there and actually advanced to the semi-finals), fell smack dab in the middle of our adolescent years.

It certainly had an impact on my life. I was the only Korean kid in my class growing up, one of only a minor handful of Asians in a predominantly white class of peers, so there’s no question that the burst of cultural pride I experienced during that tournament had a major impact in defining the person I am today.

Up until that point, I hadn’t felt all that different from anyone else; among my friends, I was pretty good athleticism and intelligence wise, clearly one of the best video game players — but that doesn’t make up for much in the ways of a unique individual identity.

I guess I was fortunate to have grown up in a sensitive and sensible enough environment that didn’t force my Korean roots onto my identity — I never experienced strong racism or simplistic labeling as the “Korean kid” growing up. I never had any sorts of feelings of resentment or leeriness towards my Korean heritage.

Instead, I was given the freedom to accept it on my own terms. When the 2002 World Cup, with all of Korea’s success and greatness relative to the world’s other nations, presented the opportunity for me to actively embrace those roots and make them my own, I did, gladly and emphatically, resulting in an abnormally strong cultural bond.

I guess it’s kind of ironic, in a world where it’s sometimes considered progressive to try to break from the fetters of being defined by one’s race, it instead ended up a very big part of how I’ve defined myself — the unrelenting cultural sports fandom, the K-Pop interests, the people I hang out and identify with.

Really, without the 2002 World Cup, I wouldn’t have had that cultural passion in my life; without that cultural passion, I wouldn’t have had interest in my heritage and culture — no K-pop, no Girls’ Generation, no irrational bitterness towards Japanese things, no Korean pride… and without those things who would I be? I’m not saying I’d be a lost soul or in an identity crisis or anything like that, but it’d certainly be different. Would I be more cookie cutter? More vanilla? More mainstream? Whitewashed? I don’t have those answers – there’s no way to know.

But at the center of all of this is a demonstration of how sports and fandom can have an impact. My story of how the 2002 World Cup led me to an empowered union with my cultural roots is just one out of an infinity of possibilities; it was just a couple weeks ago how I was talking about how Linsanity has created the beginnings of an opportunity for Asian Americans to break into the basketball mainstream. I’m sure I could also tell you how the Knicks have led me into a spiral of depression and self-doubt (that was a joke, just like the Knicks.). It’s a different tale every time – something to think about, I guess.

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