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Millions rally in South Korea - around baseball

The chance to beat rival Japan drew crowds into the street to watch the World Baseball Classic this weekend.

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Not since Korea and Japan co-hosted the World Cup 2002 soccer tournament had Koreans been so mesmerized by an athletic event.

In stadiums around the country, at large squares in major cities, and in coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and homes everywhere, millions gathered around TV sets to watch the nation's baseball team play the Japanese in the semi-finals of the World Baseball Classic in San Diego.

"Daehan Minguk," crowds shouted between innings, literally, "Republic of Korea."

The timing was perfect - the game began at 7 pm Saturday in the US, noon Sunday here, and a festive air of optimism imbued the crowds as they cheered in unison. For many Koreans, the game carried extra significance as a chance to beat rival Japan and, through sport, offer a little payback for 35 years of Japanese colonialism.

"For historical reasons, we always like to defeat Japan. It is a matter of vengeance," said Kim Sang Sun, a college student, during the final inning. He was gazing upward on a huge TV screen high beside an office building. Down the street, some 40,000 had massed before another screen on a stage beneath the words, "Fighting! Korea!" in the plaza in front of Seoul City Hall.

But despite the rallying of a nation, the victory wasn't to be. By the time the Japanese had finished thrashing three Korean pitchers in a disastrous seventh inning, the score was 6-0 in favor of a team that Korea had defeated by one-run margins twice in the series. The game ended 6-0, putting Korea out of the series despite a record of six wins, including a 7-3 thumping of the US team, against the single loss.

All weekend, though, the prospect of a climactic encounter with the Japanese team seemed to unite Koreans as nothing else could have done. Television stations repeatedly replayed heroic moments from previous games - run-scoring slides, balls soaring into the seats, diving catches, the stuff of dreams. And for several hours before the game, pop stars cavorted in stadiums, warming up crowds invited to watch free of charge on huge screens above the outfield.

"We have lost, but cheer up," said a performer after it was all over as spectators reluctantly trickled away from the grass and concrete of the city hall plaza. "We played well."

The crowds had disappeared, replaced by Sunday afternoon strollers and shoppers, when several thousand exuberant young people set off on a very different kind of demonstration - a mile-long march from Seoul Station past City Hall and the same screens where tens of thousands had been watching the baseball game.

Few people seemed to notice as demonstrators chanted slogans denouncing the war in Iraq and President Bush - and calling for Korea to pull out the 3,000 troops it has sent there.

"We have many demonstrations," said one Sunday stroller, preferring to ignore this one. "They are not the same as a game against Japan."


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