The full moon, according to any good mythology, makes people do strange things. Full-on Moonies can also be a bit odd and, as we all know, football fans are daft anyway. So the Peace Cup, an odd by-product of a Korean church headed by a bloke with a messiah complex and a love of football, seemed like a good enough reason to head to Suwon in the sticky height of summer for a couple of games that redefined meaningless.
It was 2012. The sporting world was looking to London and the upcoming Olympics. And Sunderland were on the other side of the world in a four-team tournament featuring Hamburger SV, Groningen and host club Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma. The European teams were invited on the basis of their Korean players: future Spurs star Son Hueng-min at Hamburg, Groningen’s Suk Hyun-jun and our own Ji Dong-won, scorer of the famous last-gasp goal that defeated Manchester City in those happy, pre-VAR days when offside was a matter of individual interpretation.
The organisers, impressive as they might be on matters spiritual, were clearly less up to speed with matters back on Earth. Unlike the rest of the sporting world, they seemed to have forgotten about the Games. Far from Suwon, Ji was back in England with the Korean U23s. His next engagement was a whole 12 miles from the Stadium of Light, coming off the bench in a 0-0 draw with Mexico as Korea began its Olympic campaign at St. James’ Park.
Nothing daunted, even if the main reason for inviting us was staying at home, we were in Suwon. A rag-tag travelling army, expats from the Far East and die-hards from South Tyneside. Our hosts tried to help: songsheets printed out, with helpful Korean transliteration of some Fulwell End favourites to get curious locals joining in. Admittedly, the English text wasn’t always perfect: mistyping ‘loyalest’ as ‘loyalist’ raised a wry smile. Just as well Celtic weren’t invited. And no, I can’t tell you how accurate the Korean text on a specially-made ‘Be the light’ SAFC banner might have been.
Of course, it’s the antithesis of what football is all about. Far-flung friendlies played in identikit modern bowls – the Suwon Stadium was built for the 2002 World Cup and seems, superficially, to resemble all the other arenas at that tournament. Half-paced action in half-full grounds, with the odd spectacle of local fans dressed up in red-and-white to provide an artificial welcome for team and supporters. It’s a far cry from watching the juniors playing on a gently undulating Northern League field on a summer’s evening.
A nightmare trip? Not entirely. The football was uninspiring – a 0-1 loss to Seongnam in the opening game, followed by a poor performance against Groningen that was rescued by two late goals. The 3-2 win, frankly, was more fun to look up after the event than it was to watch at the time; a steady supply of fizzy Korean beer, plus Ryan Noble’s only first-team goal, were the outstanding memories. Collecting a notional bronze medal in a four-team tournament was a bit less exciting than Ji’s Olympic bronze at Wembley, having scored against Team GB along the way.
So instead of gripping football, it was back to the beery camaraderie of the far-flung footie fan. After that Seongnam game, we were genially kidnapped and taxied to a bar somewhere in Suwon. The beer and soju flowed, the journey back to downtown Seoul and our varied beds for the night passed in a haze. Up early next morning for a tour of the demilitarized zone – and a sneaky incursion across the border into North Korea, via one of the cross-border negotiation rooms – brought a fascinating trip and an unlikely meeting with legendary goalie Jimmy Montgomery in the depths of a military tunnel. Monty cropped up again in a Seoul sports bar, another night of free beer funded by the club (in the Premier League, the club had money for things like that, and could afford to squander millions on the likes of, well, Ji Dong-won). The football, mercifully, was a footnote; the lunacy of the Moonie mission was the thing.
Suwon World Cup Stadium, Suwon, Korea
Peace Cup, July 22, 2012
Sunderland 3 (Wickham, Campbell, Noble) Groningen 2 (Suk, Schet)
Att: not given