What is your happiest memory? Go on, comb those memory banks, give them a good sift, see what falls out. Now, hold that thought. Though I have seen many more football matches on television than I have live (but there have been a few of those), the idea of picking a game I was not present at as my favourite feels equivalent to choosing as my happiest memory the time the little talking pig won a sheepdog competition, The One with the Holiday Armadillo or “you had me at hello”: special moments, happy times, but tarnished because my only involvement was watching them on a screen.
A game of football starts and ends with the referee’s whistle and is played within four lines painted on a big green rectangle, but it is also hours and days of anticipation and conversation, sights and smells, the familiar and the novel and, on the afternoon in June 2002 during which Brazil gave Costa Rica a royal shellacking, top-end novelty public toilets.
“Suwon is the leader in the culture of toilets,” the city’s mayor, Sim Jae-duck, said earlier that year as the city prepared to host four matches in the forthcoming World Cup. “We are showing the rest of the world the toilet of the future. Rome or New York or Los Angeles might have clean public toilets, but we are trying to do something more. We want to make the toilet a place of culture.” This was a genuine passion project for Sim, also the first president of the Korean Toilet Association, who was destined, five years later, to build himself a toilet-shaped house. Upon his death in 2009 his home became a museum where, according to its website, you can now learn “how important a toilet is to humans, as well as the toilet philosophy and faith of Sim Jae-duck”.
Much about the sights of South Korea had remained a mystery to me before that tournament, but thanks to Sim I knew I was going to see some quality amenities. I’m not normally a particularly public-toiletty kind of guy but, as the saying nearly goes, when in Suwon… By the time I emerged from the train station someone had pressed into my hand details of a self-guided tour of the city’s services, and off I set for a couple of hours’ free entertainment – I wasn’t feeling flush, so it helped that I didn’t have to spend a penny.
It is easy to mock, but even to this most amateur of architecture critics the toilets – each unique in design – were genuinely extraordinary. Indeed, the amount of thought and trouble lavished on structures of such humble purpose meant it was not only my bowels that found them moving. A lot of toil had gone into these toilets, and to an outsider the idea that even minor and potentially even unpleasant details could be turned into a positive source of pride if only they were given a little respect and attention seemed emblematic of the nation’s entire approach to tournament-hosting. They were meaningful and important and also quite silly, and all the better for the combination.
By the time the game kicked off I was intoxicated by the heady combination of ancient fortresses, several toilets, a healthy serving of Suwon galbi – renowned as the tastiest beef ribs in all Korea – complete with an unexpected and not exactly welcome spicy raw-crab side dish, and a great deal of sunshine. Brazil needed only to avoid defeat to top the group but instead of approaching the game with caution they scored five and let in a couple. Ronaldo managed two, Rivaldo one, and Edmílson conjured the kind of ludicrous centre-back overhead kick to which the only rational response is to look at the nearest human, roll your eyes and tut: “Brazilians – they just can’t help themselves.”
It might not have been the most meaningful game I have witnessed – it is not even the most meaningful game I saw that week – but I left Suwon reflecting on an experience that, bar perhaps the crab, had been joyful from first to last, a riot of colour and memories in which football was the central but certainly not the sole focus. Though really, thanks to Sim, the city’s toilet Jae-duck, they had me at hello.