No matter what mom said, it's never just a game. Football is about ego, respect, national pride. South Korea, for one, has turned the sport into a quest for its very identity, its hopes captured in the cheer that rings through the nation's World Cup stadiums: "Great Republic of Korea." A country often consigned to an afterthought in East Asia is out to prove that it, too, matters. Last week, it did so, by gliding through to the second round with skill and flair. That singular achievement, though, was not just about Korea's arrival as a football force but as a self-confident adult nation to be taken seriously.
Sandwiched between economic giant Japan and rising superpower China, Korea has always shouldered an inferiority complex. When the country won the right to co-host the World Cup, it saw a chance to showcase itself—particularly to Japan, its neighbor, and the U.S., its oft-contentious ally. Officials plugged Korea as Asia's most wired nation, and touted the country's capital as being as hip and caffeinated as any modern metropolis. Said bleached-haired midfielder Kim Nam Il on the eve of Korea's 2002 debut: "We want to show we are a team—and a nation—that can compete with the best, and win."
The squad began with a historic triumph over sluggish Poland, then found itself face to face with the U.S. Korea's relations with America have long seesawed between peace and peril. Although America fought on the side of the South during Korea's civil war, the 37,000 U.S. troops still stationed in the country have strained relations with their hosts. Americans argue that the troops are there to help defend the South from the North, but President George W. Bush's inclusion of North Korea in the "axis of evil" hardly endears the U.S. to Koreans.
Perhaps the most contentious issue in modern U.S.-Korea relations stems from a little-known pastime called short-track speed skating. Earlier this year at Salt Lake City, the nation's top hope Kim Dong Sung was disqualified for blocking a U.S. skater. In a move that most Koreans consider fixed, the American, Apolo Anton Ohno, took the gold instead. He's since been voted the most unwelcome foreigner in a Korean poll. When Korean midfielder Ahn Jung Hwan headed the ball home in the 77th minute of the U.S.-Korea match to tie the score 1-1 and keep the country's hopes of advancement alive, his post-goal showboating gave way to the sweeping arm motions of a speed skater. "People felt bad about the Ohno incident," says Ahn. I wanted to fix that." Score one for Korean pride.
The nation's next big test came in a do-or-die match on Friday night, when South Korea faced a star-studded side from Portugal. The Koreans needed at least a draw to guarantee advancing further in the Cup. Just hours before, Japan had qualified for the second round by dispensing with the hapless Tunisians. The possibility that Japan would advance while Korea stayed behind horrified the nation. Japan, after all, has perennially looked down upon its smaller neighbor, and brutally occupied it from 1910-45. Since then, Korea feels like it has been stuck playing catch-up to the world's second-largest economy.
It needn't have fretted. In the 69th minute of the match, midfielder Park Ji Sung deftly executed one of the prettiest strikes of the Cup. As fireworks flashed overhead, more than 400,000 citizens poured onto the streets of Seoul to celebrate. Only one thing could possibly put a damper on the beer-soaked crowds: the U.S., too, had advanced to the second round, precisely because Park's goal had relegated the Portuguese. But for once, the Koreans felt no twinge of insecurity. "We are both powerful now," says 36-year-old reveler Lee So Jung. "We can celebrate together." For the Koreans, victory has brought maturity.