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MARK RECHTIN

Runnin' with the Devils

SEOUL -- I was roused from a fitful sleep by the chants of devils.

I had flown in to Seoul late, as part of a new product introduction for Hyundai. I knew a good first-night's sleep was important. But I also knew that South Korea's Red Devils soccer team would be playing Nigeria in a crucial World Cup match, with kickoff at 3:30 a.m. local time.

Coming from a country where 95 percent of Americans wouldn't know Landon Donovan if he slide-tackled them on the street, but also having lived in soccer-mad countries such as England and Germany, I figured the mood in Seoul's streets at that bleary time would be somewhere in between. I was so very wrong.

Despite the gruesome hour, thousands of boisterous Koreans roamed the sidewalks to reach the eight-lane boulevard adjacent to the Intercontinental Hotel. Thousands more emerged from the nearby Samseong subway station.

Armed with horns, thunder sticks and the power of united voices, the jubilant mob gathered in the street in front of massive TV screens to watch their countrymen do battle with dangerous Nigeria.

It was a do-or-die match. A win meant South Korea would advance to the next round of competition -- as would a tie, combined with a win by Argentina over Greece. The fans roared from the streets, chasing away any chance I had of sleep. I decided to join them.

It was more than national pride at stake. Hyundai and Kia have shelled out tens of millions of dollars to be premier sponsors of the World Cup. It's as much South Korea's World Cup as South Africa's.

Block after city block was filled with Korea's youth, most of whom looked like they had risen early rather than pulled an all-nighter. Every single person was wearing the national team's red shirts, and the crowd's surging and swaying reminded me of a gigantic cranberry harvest.

As I mingled among South Korea's youth, most wearing flashing red devil horns on their heads, I found that the crowd had combined the charm of the Brazilian samba with the controlled fury of a very polite mosh pit. The energy was pulsating, and palpable.

I have watched World Cup action from England, and the mood among those fans is an apprehension mixed with dread of failure. In Germany, it's quiet confidence.

But in South Korea, while there is an expectation of good performance, it is backed by boisterous chants of encouragement that would do proud the terraces of Liverpool or Manchester. Banging drums, tooting horns and the clattering thunder sticks punctuated the pre-dawn air.

After a gorgeous in-swinging free kick put South Korea ahead 2-1 midway through the second half, sheer bedlam erupted. Roman candles shot from the middle of the crowd. So many people were jumping up and down that the pavement was undulating.

But Nigeria evened the score, and the rest of the match was filled with tension as repeated Nigerian attacks pressured the Korean defense.

Then the TV screen cut away to show that Argentina had beaten Greece, and a roar went up. A new chant started, which I interpreted to mean "Just hang on, boys."

Finally, the ref's whistle sounded, and the roar in Seoul could be heard in Cape Town. I was embraced by strangers, twice.

Then, as the first trickle of dawn came into view over Seoul's endless skyscrapers, the massive crowd dispersed and jauntily went to work.

If you buy a Hyundai or Kia vehicle made in Korea on June 23, it was made with pride.

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