For two years I lived in the shadow of the Guus Hiddink Stadium in a tidy suburb called Pungam. My apartment in the city, around 2010, was situated on the fourth floor with a view from the living room straight down the hill of the 44,000 seater-stadium. My walk to work every morning took me past this beautiful structure that was always busy due to a shopping mall constructed under its west stand.
But cracks are appearing up close. There’s dust on the walls, rust developing over doorways and despite its relative youth, the stadium looks dated and unloved.
Hiddink, the current manager of Chelsea, is one of Europe’s most respected coaches, although his career was beginning to spiral out of control until he succeeded Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge. After guiding Russia to the semi-finals of Euro 2008, abject failure has followed the popular Dutchman, who won just 4 of 10 games in charge of his native Netherlands.
Born and raised as one of the few notable people (thanks, Wikipedia) in the small town of Varsseveld near the German border, you’d think the Guus Hiddink Stadium would have been constructed for the local football team. But you’d be wrong.
The stadium is located in the southern Korean city of Gwangju. Purposely built for the 2002 World Cup, the stadium was renamed in his honour after South Korea beat Spain here to advance to the semi-finals of the tournament they co-hosted with Japan. “Out of this world for South Korea, outrage for Spain” was how the Guardian reported the game.
Hiddink masterminded an improbable march past Portugal, Italy and the Spanish (with the help of some really questionable refereeing) before Germany and Michael Ballack became one European hurdle too many.
Gwangju could well have become another pin on the Irish football map, for it was Spain who sent Ireland packing in the previous round. A pity, then, that presumably few people from home have ever visited this rural, slightly undeveloped city of stunning culinary magnificence. Gwangju also has a dark side, after its soul was ripped out during a bloody uprising against the military government in 1980. The siege was brutally crushed, but the revolution paved the path for the democratisation movement that swept across the country, achieving its goal in 1988.
In total, Gwangju hosted three games in 2002; Spain 3-1 Slovenia, China 0-2 Costa Rica and that quarterfinal clash which ended 0-0 after 120 minutes. The stadium somewhat resembles a mixture between the John Smith’s Stadium, Huddersfield, and Thomond Park in Limerick. The difference is Gwangju’s field has a running track and is the finish line for the city’s marathon.
Since then, it hasn’t seen anything close to the events of June 21st, 2002. Gwangju Sangmu FC were the first tenants, but they disbanded in 2010. Sangmu FC is the football wing as part of the sports division of the Korean military. The team was so detested and unsuccessful that often crowds of fewer than a thousand people turned up. The atmosphere was nonexistent to the point when once I turned up to a game 15 minutes late, saw no goals, and left the park no idea if Sangmu had won or lost. They drew 0-0.
Foreign players were prohibited and the squad was made up almost exclusively of young males doing their 2 years of military service. When a player was substituted, he’d walk off the field and salute his superiors in the main stand. What would Guus make of it all? Has he forgotten about the city and the stadium? Who knows?
Sangmu was thrown onto the scrapheap of defunct football clubs only to rise again elsewhere in the country. They were replaced by the simpler Gwangju FC, who opened their maiden season in front of 15,000 spectators at the Hiddink Bowl. And, unlike their predecessors, they came prepared with 2 journeymen Brazilians in the line up, adding to opening weekend atmosphere. It didn’t matter that their superstar imports were a level above garbage, they generated an excitement not seen for nearly a decade.
However, the club would soon realise that the people of Gwangju are just not that interested in football. Baseball is untouchable in the minds of the citizens and soon attendances at World Cup Stadium dwindled. Two years later, the club was relegated from the K-League, pushing football further and further behind baseball.
Guus Hididnk is loved in Korea. There is a hotel named after him in Gwangju, a karaoke room in Seoul and a Korean-Dutch museum, – the Guuseum – has opened in Varsseveld. Undoubtedly there are more examples, but these are the ones I’ve seen. But Korea’s uneasy relationship with football (except for live Premier League matches on SBS every Saturday) means Hididnk’s legacy is now associated with another one of those World Cup 2002 relics in Korea.
A ghost stadium towering above a shopping mall, a driving range and an artificial lake in southern Gwangju. There are no statues, no celebrations and, in fact, very little evidence that one night, 14 years ago, South Korea shocked the footballing world by eliminating Spain in the last 8. Too often the Guus Hiddink is eerily empty on the same grass that once welcomed Iker Casillas, Xavi, Fernando Morientas and Luis Enrique.
He bears an uncanny resemble to William Petersen, best known for playing Gil Brissom in CSI Las Vegas. But that’s not what makes him a legend in South Korea. It is just a pity that football didn’t prosper in the park named after his good name.