Meeting Kevin Gallacher wasn’t quite the highlight of the evening – especially for the amiable Scot after I told him that I had been present when he had broke his leg on two occasions - but it came close to matching a dull game between France and South Korea in Leipzig.
Lunchtime was spent with a group of L’Equipe journalists who were convinced that the team was on its last legs and was about to be put out of its misery. Their pessimistic mood was in marked contrast to that of a group of Swiss sports scribes I had dinner with five days previously, after the Korea-Togo match. Upon witnessing that Korea victory and the subsequent turgid 0-0 draw between their team and France, the writers upgraded their team’s expected finishing position from second to an unequivocal first.
On the afternoon of the game, it was hard to navigate the narrow streets of Leipzig’s historic city centre, filled as they were with people packed taking advantage of the many outside bars and pubs.
The Koreans were louder –they almost always are – as they proved in the stadium. The communist built ZentralStadion looked to be mostly blue upon entrance but the sound that could be heard on a warm Saxony evening came from the red section – one that never stopped singing and dancing.
Desperate to avoid more barbs from the likes of L’Equipe, the French started brightly and it was little surprise when Thierry Henry put the team ahead in the ninth minute. On the half-hour it should have been two as Patrick Viera’s header certainly crossed the line before being beaten away by Lee Woon-jae in goal - the ‘keeper has answered his critics with two fine performances so far in Group G.
The Taeguk Warriors offered little as an attacking force but improved in the second half as Park Ji-sung was moved into the midfield from the wing. His energy in the middle redressed the balance somewhat, especially as France seemed satisfied with the scoreline as it was. Korea’s attempts to break through the excellent defensive pairing of William Gallas and Lilian Thuram were helped by the introduction of Ahn Jung-hwan with 20 minutes remaining. For the second time in a week, the Lord of the Ring changed the pace of the game and Korea came more and more into it.
The equaliser was a fairly shambolic one from a French point of view though the sight of the ball looping over a hitherto unemployed Fabian Barthez was a delicious one from the Korean point of view – one not shared by the obviously furious Gallas who booted the ball to Dresden.
There was no doubt which set of fans and players were happier after the game. The Koreans stayed on the pitch to salute their wonderful fans while the French players showed more urgency in leaving the field than they did for most of the second half – a speedy exit matched by their fans. The Koreans stayed to sing and judging by the sounds coming out of Leipzig city centre in the early hours, their numbers were swelled by a number of new Red Devils.
The French were disappointed but not overly so, in the mixed zone their players pointed out that they only had to defeat Togo to reach the second round while the Switzerland defeat of the Africans by two goals mean that South Korea also have to win in Hanover on Friday night to be sure of progressing.
It should be some night.
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