Groundhopping in K League and Beyond: Suwon World Cup Stadium
It was left to the majestic Gaizka Mendieta to finish the job, and that is exactly what he did. The midfielder, who made his name with the great Valencia side at the turn of the century, nonchalantly rolled his spot kick passed Shay Given and into the net. Spain was through to the World Cup quarter finals to play co-hosts South Korea. Republic of Ireland was going home.
The date was June 16th, 2002, and the venue was Suwon’s impressive World Cup Stadium. These are haunting memories for fans of the Boys in Green. Every time I step through the turnstiles and peer out over the multicolored seating, I can’t help but remember a time when following my national team was so full of joy, hope and wild expectations. They trudged off the field, in defeat, and, over twenty-years later, have not been back.
Mendieta delivered the fatal blow and Suwon bore witness. A generation of Irish football fans have never seen a World Cup, thanks to events in Suwon. I think that is why I like visiting this stadium the most in Korea. Something tragic happened to Irish football and it has not been repaired. It should be riddled with sadness and disappointment and yet, in ways I can’t explain, the unique wing-shaped roof, the sponsored tarping covering the colored seats and graffiti etched on the cold, concrete pillars in the north end are so comforting.
|The roof over Suwon World Cup Stadium’s main stand is one of the most intriguing pieces of stadium architecture in Korea. (Image: Instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)|
With a capacity of over 44,000, construction of this beautiful football-specific stadium (fortunately there is no running track) was completed just in time for the 2001 Confederations Cup. Its nickname is ‘Big Bird,’ thanks to that roof over the main stand. K-League’s Suwon Samsung Bluewings made the short move down the road from the city’s Sports Complex in 2001, and have stayed ever since. This is a stadium that would grace any top tier football league.
Park Ji-sung, Son Heung-min, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Luis Figo, Raul, Marcel Desailly, Harry Kane, Federico Valverde and many other stars, from a bygone era and today, have laced up and sprayed passes across the green grass of Suwon’s World Cup Stadium. Not bad for a stadium that is barely two decades old.
Suwon hosted, amongst others games, the semifinal between eventual champions France and Brazil in the Confederations Cup. Twelve months later, Brazil was back, putting five goals past Costa Rica in the World Cup. Suwon hosted three group stages games in total that June and paying punters got value for money. 18 goals were scored before Spain’s 1-1 draw with Ireland meant a penalty shoot-out. Spain’s win marked the end of Ireland’s World Cup, and Suwon’s too.
In 2017, major international football was back in Suwon, this time in the form of the U-17 FIFA World Cup. The Final and Third/Fourth Place Off were held at ‘Big Bird.’ England won it all, beating Venezuela in front of 30,000 fans. Korea Republic last visited Suwon in June 2022, as part of their World Cup preparations. A full house saw Paolo Bento’s team recover from 2-0 down to tie the game late on, in front of jubilant home fans.
For the Bluewings, once a powerhouse of football both at home and across Asia, winning League Championships, FA Cups and AFC Champions League trophies seems like a distant memory. For all the club’s success since moving house in 2001, the most important club game to take place here, in recent times, was arguably the relegation-promotion playoff against Anyang to prevent the ignominy of a first ever relegation. Suwon won, but it took a 119th minute in the second leg to avoid catastrophe.
It wasn’t always this bad for Suwon’s suffering fans. The last game I watched before Covid-19 closed sport was at this stadium, when the Bluewings hosted Andres Iniesta and Vissel Kobe in the AFC Champions League. Unfortunately, the hosts were beaten 1-0 but the joy of seeing a magician like Iniesta at both ends of his career was an opportunity that could not be missed. From then on, football was either played behind closed doors or, later, with restrictions imposed. Those restrictions are gone.
|Suwon fans seek shelter in the North Stand during last October’s rain-soaked encounter with bitter rivals, FC Seoul. (Image: Instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)|
As befitting a stadium of this size, ‘Big Bird’ looms large over the surrounding area. During a night game, the floodlights are visible for miles and miles. There is a big university behind where the away fans sit but arriving from the north, the busy World Cup-ro gradually winds downhill bringing the full might of the stadium into view on the left.
The World Cup stadium is an entertainment magnet for residents, even those not interested in the beautiful game. On match-day, teenagers skateboard around fans lining up for pre-game grub from a truck, others perform wheelies on the bikes and, in the vast green park behind the north stand, families picnic and dogs are taken for a walk. A K1 fixture for the Bluewings is just one of many reasons people flock to this magnificent structure.
Beneath the main stand there is a wedding hall, so don’t be surprised to see newlyweds and guests mingling in the carparks with blue-clad fans decked out in their Samsung sponsored merchandise. Here you will also find the World Cup Museum, a must-see if you are in Suwon. Amongst other collections, there is a section on the history of football in Korea, plenty of 2002 material and a timeline of the national jersey’s evolution.
Unlike, say, the World Cup stadium in Seoul, the ground has no immediate subway station, but access is reasonably straightforward. The closest subway station is a 30-minute walk from Gwanggyo Jungang Station on the red-colored Shin-Bundang Line. There is another option, with the yellow-colored Suin Bundang line also within an hour’s walk.
However, the most interesting route to take is from Suwon Station, on the dark-blue line 1. The walk to World Cup Stadium takes approximately an hour, but a short detour will take you along the walls of the enormous Hwaseong Fortress, a Joseon dynasty fortification built in the late 18th century. Much like the World Cup Stadium, Hwaseong is a must-see for a day out in Suwon. Add some of the city’s famous galbi and this is a great day out for anyone looking to watch football in Korea.
|Fans queue outside the club shop before June’s visit of FC Seoul in K League 1 (Image: Instagram.com/groundhopping_korea).|
Suwon is also unique in being the only city in Korea this season with a local derby in K League 1. Suwon FC will host the Bluewings in the former’s old home, Sports Complex, on March 11th. They next installment of the derby will at the World Cup stadium in June. For fans who like watching doubleheaders, there will an early opportunity as both Suwon clubs host games on Saturday, April 15th. You can also add a baseball game at KT Wiz Park to complete an impressive triple header weekend.
The Bluewings open their 2023 season with a home game against newly promoted Gwangju FC on February 25th. You won’t see players of the caliber named above, but this is a live, professional game in one of the country’s best stadiums. Buy a ticket, get some food from a truck, and enjoy a cold beer in the early Spring sunshine. Heck, you might see the ghosts of Ireland’s last great adventure.
- Andrew Farrell
You can follow Andrew's groundhopping adventures over on his Instagram by clicking here!