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(Yonhap Feature) Football: no violence please -- we're Korean
By Richard Leiper
Contributing writer
SEOUL, April 17 (Yonhap) -- For fans of European football, when it comes to match-day violence, they have seen it all. There are the riots that erupted after the 2008 UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) Cup Final between the Scottish team Rangers and Russia's Zenit St. Petersburg. There are the fans who throw coins at opposing players, as seen earlier this year from West Ham United supporters who decided to show Chelsea player John Terry how they really felt. Then there is 1990s-era Manchester United player Eric Cantona, who once karate-kicked a fan in the crowd at a game.

   To put it mildly, football violence is not a new concern in Europe.

   Meanwhile, in Korea, it is quite the opposite.

   After the 2002 World Cup, co-hosts Korea and Japan were awarded the FIFA Fair Play Award for exemplary fan behavior throughout the competition. In fact, Korea and Japan are the only nations ever to receive this prestigious award for hosting an international football tournament. Furthermore, for Korea, this was its second time receiving this significant honor, after 1988 when it hosted the Seoul Olympics. The tournaments marked a rare instance in which "the beautiful game" remained beautiful in the stands.

   K-League fans can attest to the fact that this is not a behavioral trait that only occurs at international tournaments, when the world is watching.

Fans at Korean football matches hardly misbehave, which earned them awards for setting good examples. (Courtesy of K-League)

"While loud and energetic, Korean soccer matches are much more family- and couples-oriented," said Chunnam Dragons fan Michael Airhart, an American. "Team support and enthusiastic chanting create a friendly, non-hostile atmosphere."

   Fellow Dragons fan Jeff Graham, also an American, agreed. "I'm amazed at the respect and the docility that soccer fans have at the games, toward the players, referees and visiting fans," he said. "There is an inherent respect for others and oneself that is not often found in Europe."

   Jesse Fink, columnist and author of the critically acclaimed "15 Days in June: How Australia Became a Football Nation," credits culture for the disparate behavior between European and Asian fans. "In Asian culture, respect for authority and filial piety are deeply enshrined in the collective consciousness," he said via e-mail. "In Europe less so. Young European men are scornful of their elders and those in authority."

   Thus, governing bodies in Europe have taken extensive measures to curb disorderly conduct on match days. Measures include the introduction of all-seater stadiums, CCTV coverage, extensive football stewards training and closer cooperation with police, on top of a ban on violent fans.

   In Asia, despite the odd confrontational incident, such as Park Jong-woo's political sign-wielding at last year's Olympic games, football crowds enjoy largely positive, violence-free matches.

   Hong Seung-min, a member of the K-League's marketing team, ties Confucianism to effective crowd control. "I think that Korea and other Far East countries are familiarly influenced by Confucian culture," Hong said. "Due to this we tend to behave carefully toward others. I believe this trait of our nationality is the main reason for less of a problem with crowd control."

   Hong also points to the Korean psyche, both domestically and internationally, of going to football games to support their team, not to berate the opposition.

   "In Korea, we've grown up in the Confucian culture where bonding together is really important," said Hong of the K-League. "Especially during the World and Asian Cups, we support our national team with passion."

   Over in Europe, a number of tribal ties provoke violence between rival fan groups. For example, politics charge encounters between Spain's Barcelona and Real Madrid, while pride and the battle for English supremacy fuel the antipathy between Liverpool and Manchester United.

   To this, the online soccer magazine Three Match Ban asks the pertinent question, "When does blind support for your team end and vitriolic hatred of the opposition start?"

   The most extreme example can be found in Scotland between Rangers and Celtic. The BBC once summed up the ugly atmosphere of these games by saying, "(Rangers and Celtic) matches have always been tense affairs and the mutual antipathy between the supporters has often been stirred up by sectarian songs and chants on both sides."

   That spirit of negativity is largely absent from Korean matches. "It seems that Korean people always look forward to the national team's success," Hong said, "and because of 2002 World Cup, we saw the possibility that we could make it."

   Fink, the columnist and author, points toward the pre-match drinking culture in Europe as another problem. "There also isn't this mad obsession in Asia among young men of getting wasted on alcohol before football matches, but there is in Europe," Fink said. While Koreans are famously enthusiastic about drinking, it rarely becomes a problem in the football stadium.

   Graham adds, "There is no overtly drunken behavior, even though one can bring any type of alcohol, such as beer and soju (a potent local spirit), freely into the arena." European football venues ban the sale and consumption of alcohol within the stadiums to try and curb the disorder, although fan-filled bars enjoy good business on match days.

   UEFA is now taking a hard-line stance on soccer hooligans, stating on its Web site that it "will not tolerate violence either on the pitch or in the stands. Football must set an example."

   But in order to make it so, Europe will require a seismic shift in attitude and culture to catch up with the Korean mentality of simply enjoying "the beautiful game."