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Koreatown Erupts in Joy, Pride

Sports: World Cup win over heavily favored Italian team sparks a spontaneous celebration.

June 19, 2002|DAREN BRISCOE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

World Cup fever gripped another pocket of Los Angeles on Tuesday morning.

Again it struck before dawn, with motorists blaring their horns and grinning uncontrollably, people breaking into spontaneous laughter and a sudden profusion of flags flown from car windows or worn as clothing.

This time, however, it was in Koreatown. And unlike Monday's game in which Mexico lost to the United States, this time the sentimental favorite was the winner.

South Korea, expected to lose its 4:30 a.m. televised match to heavily favored Italy, hadn't won a single game in five previous trips to the worldwide tournament. But in the 27th minute of overtime, South Korea's Ahn Jung-hwan scored the winning goal, beating Italy 2-1 and sending the team to the quarterfinals.

"Italy was the favorite," said an ecstatic Richard Won, 22. "But I knew we would win."

Won was one of several hundred fans of the South Korean team who gathered in a mini-mall parking lot at 6th Street and Alexandria Avenue to celebrate. After watching the game at home, Won saw news broadcasts of the impromptu gathering and headed for the party. Before leaving, he stripped the large Korean flag hanging from his bedroom wall and affixed it to the door of his powder-blue Toyota Celica.

"I've never seen anything like it," Won said. "Everybody is going crazy."

The crowd was large enough to stop early morning traffic, though fans arriving after 8:30 were latecomers. Police were dispatched, but no one was hurt or arrested, said LAPD spokesman Jason Lee.

The celebrants included Ellen Cho and two friends who drove to Koreatown from Santa Fe Springs, Cho wearing a red T-shirt to show her support for the team, the Red Devils.

The three had watched the game at Petra Joosung Church after a morning prayer meeting. Cho said the 5:20 a.m. meeting was rescheduled for 4 a.m. to avoid a conflict with the game.

"I think people were praying a little harder than usual," Cho said. "I know I was."

Many fans watched the upset from big-screen televisions set up by local business owners such as Yeun Dan Lee at her Albenei restaurant.

In honor of the team's accomplishments, Lee has served free lunches to 300 to 400 customers after each victory.

Her voice nearly spent from shouting, Lee nonetheless smiled and vowed to continue with the free food as long as the team wins.

"If they win [the tournament], maybe I'll have free food all day," Lee said.

Surrounded by ecstatic teenagers, many with faces painted in the red, white and blue of the Korean flag, Samuel Kang, 51, stood proudly, his back ramrod straight.

"I believe in my team and in my country," Kang said, his voice breaking. "I'm very happy."

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