As Australia eyes its Women’s World Cup legacy, South Korea offers a cautionary tale | Women’s World Cup 2023

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The co-hosts swept to the semi-finals of the World Cup, creating then riding a wave of national fervour only to be beaten by a more clinical, ruthless and efficient European opponent. Quickly overriding the initial disappointment was pride at what had been achieved and optimism over the start of a new era. Politicians wore scarves inside stadiums and out, newspapers were wall-to-wall with football coverage and broadcasters who had been lukewarm in the past couldn’t get enough. The future looked dazzling.

Sound familiar? But this is not just the current Australian experience – South Korea found itself in a similar situation when it hosted the Men’s World Cup in 2002. But as Australia basks in the magical afterglow of the Matildas’ run, South Korea can serve as a cautionary tale.

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Just a year after the Taegeuk Warriors lost 1-0 to Germany in the 2002 semi-finals, it was almost as if their World Cup heroics had never happened. Looking back, it could even be argued that it would have been better for the sport domestically had the tournament never taken place at all. The buzz doesn’t last that long.

Few would have believed that at the time. To be in South Korea that summer was a pleasure and a privilege. A team that had five previous appearances but no wins beat Poland and Portugal to top their group and then eliminated Italy and Spain. Initial relief at not falling at the first hurdle was followed by excitement, then disbelief, then delight. Games were replayed nonstop – on the Seoul subway, in hairdressers, bars and restaurants. People talking of nothing else took to the streets (500,000 for the first game with Poland and then an estimated 7 million for Germany), and then cleaned up at the end.

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South Korean players celebrate after their extra-time victory over Italy in the 2002 World Cup.
South Korean players celebrate after their extra-time victory over Italy in the 2002 World Cup. Photograph: Kim Jae-Hwan/AFP/Getty Images

After the Germany loss, the Taeguk Warriors lost the third-place playoff to Turkey, on another perfect night. While there was sadness that this journey had ended, there was excitement as the Red Devils – the ever-growing army of active fans – unfurled a banner that simply said “C U @ K-League”.

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It was a message received and understood. Just days later, the first round of five games saw 123,000 attend – the highest ever – while the old rival sport of baseball didn’t even reach five figures. Busan coach Kim Ho-gon said the new atmosphere motivated the players to play better and it seemed like there was a new energy as the K-League, which national coach Guus Hiddink had previously said was like a “walking game”, was reaching international standards. Games were shown live on national television every week, sandwiched by documentaries made during the summer.

Little was done, however, by the Korea Football Association to take advantage of this, with too much focus on who was going to replace the Hiddink (indeed, the organisation has struggled in this regard ever since). The excitement soon faded and while the season average was a healthy 15,000, attendances were dropping by the end and continued in that direction. The 2002 captain Hong Myong-bo had warned clubs not to just enjoy the money suddenly rolling in but to think about the future. But the advice was ignored, unsurprisingly given the top-down ownership model at most Korean clubs.

An aerial image of thousands of people in red in a public city square
Tens of thousands of South Korean fans watch a World Cup match viewing in central Seoul. Photograph: Reuters

The impressive stadiums soon became a problem and not just because the 10 arenas – all brand new – were far too big for the K-League’s needs. They were constructed more for the perceived needs of the tournament rather than the host cities, often far from downtown. It was galling to emerge from Jeonju station to see the lights of the old city stadium nearby but then have to take a 30-minute bus ride to the new home of Jeonbuk Motors, sitting next to the motorway on the outskirts. Incheon, where Park Ji-sung jumped into the arms of Hiddink after scoring a fine goal against Portugal, was a horrible place to watch football. Eventually, Incheon United moved to a much smaller, intimate and central venue with Daegu and Gwangju following suit.

There was a failure to use the World Cup fever to negotiate long-term broadcasting deals that would have served the domestic game. Within a few years, KBS still showed some games but more out of a sense of duty as the national broadcaster than any real enthusiasm. Baseball, with more support in the upper echelons of the traditional media, started to get back on top. The lack of money in football helps explain a big match-fixing scandal of 2011. It was so damaging that the government threatened to shut it down. Only recently have attendances started to rise again.

In tangible football terms the legacy of 2002 is a story of missed opportunities, but this is a tale of two halves and the second is more positive. Many South Koreans cite that summer as inspiration. It also changed attitudes. Hong may not have been able to kiss the trophy as he had hoped, but leading newspaper Dong-A Ilbo said the national team showed Asia the World Cup did not have to be the sole preserve of South Americans or Europeans.

In May 2002 South Korea’s international image was still dominated by the division of the peninsula. President Kim Dae-jung said the World Cup showed a dynamic and modern Korea, a place to visit and invest in. It helped set the scene for the next step, the Korean Wave. K-pop, TV dramas and movies that turned an outward-looking nation into a global cultural force.

The 2002 World Cup showed the power of football to change a country even if it struggled to bring lasting change to the country’s football itself. For Australia, it could be that the legacy of the Women’s World Cup is not what’s expected, for better or for worse.

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