- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

SEOUL — The Songnam Ilhwa Chunma soccer club, Korea’s reigning champion, is relatively new to the city of Songnam.

The team — named after its sponsor, Ilhwa Ginseng Tea, and nicknamed Chunma, which means Unicorns — moved to Songnam from Chonan, a town one hour south of Seoul, two years ago.

At first the mayor of Songnam wanted to expel the team and refused to let it play at the Seoul World Cup Stadium because the club is affiliated with the South Korean-based Unification Church. The mayor was running for re-election in the heavily Protestant town and used the attack on the team as part of his platform.

“It was a mixture of bigotry and political opportunism,” said Eoghan Sweeney, soccer writer for the Korea Times.

Fans demonstrated against the mayor by lying down in front of his car. The mayor relented, and Songnam went on to win the 2001 and 2002 K-League titles.

“Winning the championship put a stop to the team’s problems,” said Sweeney.

Cost no obstacle

When it comes to soccer, loyal fans will travel long distances without worrying about the expense.

Forty supporters made the 10-hour flight from Istanbul to Seoul to watch Turkish champion Besiktas JK meet Songnam Ilhwa Chunma in the opening game of the eight-club, $2 million Peace Cup at the Seoul World Cup Stadium on Tuesday.

One Turkish family that stood out — donned in the black and white colors of the Turkish club — was Liftz Hasan; his Korean wife, Kyung Lee; and their baby Joseph. Lee met her Turkish husband a few years ago while a volunteer with the Korean government in Uzbekistan, where he was studying.

“Before I came to Turkey, I didn’t know much about soccer, but they are mad on the game thereþ” Lee said. “Turkey did so well in the World Cup, coming in third. Now I’ve really come to love the game.”

The game didn’t end in Turkey’s favor in the monsoon-like conditions. Songnam, based about 30 minutes south of Seoul and backed by a crowd of well more than 40,000, got a dramatic late goal from the 2002 Korean league MVP Kim Dae-eui to win 2-1.

Fifteen Turkish journalists are following Besiktas.

Away from home

Like America’s Major League Soccer, the 12-team Korean league, known as the K-League, is attractive to foreigners. Songnam started four non-Koreans against Besiktas: forward Sasa Drakulic (Serbia), defender Ricardo Irineu (Brazil), and midfielders Denis Laktionov (Russia) and Jasenko Sabitovic (Croatia).

Most famous and colorful is Drakulic, a temperamental, talented striker who brings good luck and goal scoring ability wherever he goes. Since 1998, Drakulic has won a championship medal each year with three different clubs.

In 2001 he was lured to Songnam with a $1 million signing bonus, and the club won the title two years in a row. It is currently leading the K-League.

Drakulic, who appears a milder version of fiery D.C. United forward Hristo Stoitchkov, is the league’s leading goal scorer and recently scored his 100th K-League goal.

In Tuesday’s game, he scored with a stunning, 30-yard free kick that would have made David Beckham proud.

Holy hands

Although Sasa Drakulic may be the most famous player in Korea, the most beloved overseas star is Russian goalie Valeri Sarytchev. At 43, he is the oldest player in the K-League, where he plays for the Anyang Cheetahs. In obtaining citizenship, the Russian had to take a Korean name. The fans begged him to take the nickname they had given him — Shin Ui-Son — which literally means “The Hands of God.” He is listed in game reports by his Korean name.

Sarytchev played 10 years for top Russian club Dynamo Moscow before coming to Korea in the early 1990s.

Corner kicks

People with respiratory problems have a tough time with the air in Seoul at this time of the year. A dark gray blanket of smog hung over the Seoul World Cup Stadium for Tuesday’s Peace Cup game. Luckily, the 86-degree heat and humidity departed when rain cleared the air in the second half. To escape the rain, Korean fans stormed into the press area. …

In Korea, the coach is the first to reach the press room — unlike the United States, where reporters on tight deadlines often have to wait for coaches to appear for a postgame interview.

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