Over reading week, I went to visit my sister who is studying in Seoul for her year abroad at Yonsei University. I arrived on Friday evening and headed straight into early Halloween festivities. The next morning we took the Seoul metro an hour from Sinchon (Yonsei territory) to a stadium closer to Korea University (KU).
The venue was the Goyang Stadium, the home of the now-dissolved former K-League two-side Goyang Zaicro FC. It is occasionally used for South Korean international football fixtures. The stadium boasts a capacity of 41,000, making it bigger than Elland Road, and the same size as Stamford Bridge. It’s a far cry from The Armitage Centre, where the UoM Football team are based.
This was all in the afternoon on the same day of the shocking Itaewon stampede, which we were very lucky not to be involved in.
The fixture was part of the Yonsei-Korea Friendship Games’, an annual competition between two of the biggest Seoul universities. They compete in nine sports against each other before the winning university is crowned. Basketball and ice hockey are the most sought-after events and due to high demand, international students are not allowed to attend.
The Games mark the peak of university sport, with the student-athletes having waited their whole degrees to compete in the end-of-season game.
Yonsei versus KU is a historical rivalry and the fanfare can be most easily compared to the Oxford v. Cambridge boat race, but much bigger. University sport in Korea is much more similar to the US than the UK. It is often the route to professional football, so these footballers are likely to be those scouted by K-League teams.
The whole event was a complete culture shock. Crime rates are incredibly low in Korea, which meant that opposing fans were not separated by any barriers or stewards. This meant at first we accidentally strolled into the KU fan area.
Not only were there no stewards separating the fans, but there was not a single steward or policeman protecting the pitch from fans, or in attendance at all. Nor was there a single-ticket inspector. Incredibly, all the turnstiles were fully open, and you didn’t need a ticket to watch the free event. It was open to the public, not just students. You could enter and re-enter as many times as you wanted, and bring in any items of food, drinks, or alcohol that you pleased.
This was only the beginning of the crazy spectacle. The football kicked off at 2:30pm, but we arrived at 1:45pm, catching the end of a rugby match. The two matches were both in succession at the same stadium, with makeshift rugby posts and lines removed before the football started.
As we entered the atmosphere was absolutely electric, and very friendly. The KU fans were totally drenched in red clothing, with Yonsei fans drenched in blue. There was loud chanting and dancing from the fans throughout the whole 90 minutes. This was partly a result of the compulsory chanting and dancing lessons my sister and other Yonsei students were given a month previously, in anticipation of this fixture.
Most people donned American-style sports jackets, proudly displaying their university badge and their degree. These jackets seemed to take over Seoul after the game. When we returned back to Sinchon, these jerseys could be seen everywhere, and chanting from fans continued for hours in streets and bars.
The biggest cultural difference I noticed was how seriously the game was taken, and how much funding there was. Free food was handed out to spectators. We received cakes, ice cream, milk, fruit, and gimbap. The milk and cake was even sponsored by Yonsei University!
The stadium was totally decorated with KU and Yonsei merchandise. Banners and flags of the players were placed on different stands. Even Match Attax cards of every player were handed out, with a QR code directing you to their respective Instagram pages.
Throughout the match, there were dancers dressed as elves interacting with the fans. This role is apparently sought after even more greatly than competing in the sport games itself. There were also loudspeakers that played music throughout the game.
Despite the picturesque stadium and pitch, and all the effort put into the game, the quality was surprisingly low. The players seemed fairly technically skilled, but there lacked any sort of tactical play from either side. In a game of little footballing excitement, Yonsei scored halfway through the second half, in the one moment of real quality in the game. The goal was greeted with jubilant celebration from Yonsei fans and players alike, which continued until well after the final whistle
It was a really special occasion to be able to attend. It really couldn’t have been more different from any BUCS competition.