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World Cup fever grips Korean soccer fans in Flushing

The nerves and anticipation that typically mark a wedding were in the air, but no such ceremony took place at the Seoul Plaza party hall on Northern Boulevard early Monday morning.

The Flushing facility was home to a different sort of ritual as more than 1,000 red-shirted South Korea supporters ignored sleep to watch their Red Devils take on the United States in a first round World Cup soccer match.

Drummers pounded out a rhythm as energetic shouts of “Tae Han Min Kook,” or “Great Big Korea,” filled the room even before fans at the wedding hall stood for the pre-game singing of the U.S. and South Korean national anthems.

American and South Korean flags hung from the ceiling and a huge 100-by-100 foot television screen showed the TV Korea broadcast via satellite, transforming the hall into a stadium. An overflow crowd of more than 100 people watched the game on a smaller screen in a hallway outside the main room.

The festivities were organized by Seoul Plaza owner Chong Min Mun, who spent more than $13,000 on equipment alone to make the broadcast possible. A local video rental store donated red Korea/Japan World Cup 2002 caps, which were handed out to all fans.

Joseph Son, 30, of Astoria, said the game took on added significance for Korean Americans because a South Korean speed skater was penalized during the 2002 Winter Olympics, allowing American Apollo Anton Ohno to win gold.

“I think he cheated us,” Son said. “He pushed the Korean and people are very angry about that.”

Throughout the game, the crowd took their cues from the 60,778 fans who watched the game live from a stadium in the southeastern city of Taegu, South Korea. Chants of “Great Big Korea” in Taegu energized the Flushing gathering, which joined in, creating an electric atmosphere.

“It’s wonderful,” said Young Lee, 39, of Sunnyside, who emigrated from South Korea six years ago. “I never expected so many people to come. It shows Korean unity.”

Like many of the fans, Lee planned to take Monday off from work.

Each time the South Koreans crossed midfield with control of the ball, their supporters ranging in age from 5 to 75 rose and stood on their seats in anticipation of a goal. Fans in the back extended to their tippy toes and others jumped in the air to see the screen.

But U.S. striker Clint Mathis buried a left-footed shot in the 24th minute, putting everyone back in their seats and provoking a momentary silence.

Fans held their breaths when Hwang Sun Hong was bloodied in a collision with a U.S. player and cheered wildly when the injured player returned to the field with his head wrapped in a white bandage. They groaned when U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel dove to his right to make a spectacular save on Lee Eul-Yong’s penalty kick.

At halftime, singers entertained the crowd.

Seoul Plaza had the largest Korean turnout in the city for Monday’s game, but groups got together across Flushing to root on their homeland. Over the past 20 years, the neighborhood has become the destination of choice for thousands of South Korean immigrants to the United States.

Some five blocks up Northern Boulevard, at the H20 bar and restaurant, about 75 people gathered to watch the game in a more intimate setting.

The fans included former city council candidate Terence Park, who wore a pin depicting the American and South Korean flags on his suit lapel.

“America is like my father and Korea is like my mother,” he said. “But in sports I have to side with my motherland.”

The anxious crowd watched South Korea dominate the game, but were continually frustrated by the acrobatic net minding of Friedel.

The tension quickly turned to jubilation as Ahn Jung-Hwan headed Lee Eul-Yong’s free kick from midfield into the right side of the net to tie the score in the 78th minute.

Lee Jun, 24, of Flushing, grabbed his two friends around the shoulders to form a circle and the three jumped up and down in a triumphant dance. Chants of “Korea is Best,” filled the bar.

Few even saw the celebration on the field, which included Jung-Hwan pretending to speed skate in a clear reference to the Winter Olympics controversy.

South Korea had one more golden opportunity to score, but Choi Yong-Soo chipped a perfect pass from Lee Eul-Yong over the goal.

The Red Devils and their fans had to settle for a 1-1 tie with the United States.

Back at Seoul Plaza, happy fans were treated to half off special dishes created by chef Hyun-Young Park just for the game. The menu, which included a spicy vegetable soup called Heajangkook and a noodle dish appropriately dubbed World Cup Noodles, would have been served free of charge had South Korea won the game.

Fans will have another chance for the free meal when South Korea plays Portugal Friday, June 14, at 7:25 a.m. That game will be broadcast live from Seoul Plaza.

As the hall emptied out Monday morning, cars lined Northern Boulevard and honked their horns in unison to the same rhythmic beat that had reverberated through the makeshift stadium during the game.

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-03000, Ext. 156.

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