Korea’s Women Footballers: Progress, Heroics and fighting the odds

It’s been over a week since the Korean Women’s National team progressed to the World Cup Round of 16, history achieved even before they faced stalwarts France in Montreal on June 21st.  Despite France dispatching an injury depleted Korean squad, we look back at the progress and hopeful momentum going forward for the Korean eujahs, including the miracle of Ottawa, and perhaps a better description of miraculous – how this team managed to advance so far, so fast despite an incredible lack of funding and attention back home in Korea…

If you didn’t read Tim Lee’s excellent official Tavern post match recap, start there first. It may have been a lopsided 3-0 result, but the Koreans never say die resolve and grit allowed them to exit the World Cup gracefully, heads held high.

Let me add a few very belated post-match notes from the France v Korea Round of 16:

    • Ji So-Yun out & injured meant no chance for an upset against France. Called it before kickoff – it’s not even disputable. That’s not to say that Korea gave up without a fight, but the Player of the Match from Korea’s historic 2-1 victory over Spain to advance from group stage out injured meant that any realistic chance to attack France and unlock their defense went out with her hamstring injury. Too bad, as the world missed out on seeing a better R of 16 matchup with England’s Player of the Year progressively getting sharper with each WWC game. Obvious conclusion is Korea lacks depth, but we’ll go into that later.
    • Frustrating timing for Park Eun-Sun’s injury. Frustrating in that the timing of her ankle injury meant the world couldn’t witness Park at her 100% best. A pre tournament injury meant missing out on the first 2 group matches. When she returned to the pitch in the do-or-die group finale against Spain, it was clear she wasn’t back to full fitness. Coach Yoon utilized her height to be the target tall front woman (a la Kim Shin-Wook) to hold and distribute, but as Tim observed, tactically less effective when other players weren’t able to take advantage by not catching up further up field.
    • Tim already mentioned tuhon spirit, but damn, Kim Jung-mi is one tough keeper.  Watching a replay of France v Korea icymi is worth a look to witness ultimate fighting (a la goalkeeping) at it’s best, not once but twice getting knocked hard both sides of her face!  Talk about turning the other cheek. Despite the loss, her performance was enough to earn her this distinction:

 

  • As mentioned before, by making the Round of 16 in this World Cup – history was blazed with this Korean women’s squad. With little funding or attention, this team managed in a span of 12 years something that took the men’s squad over 40 years of failed attempts to do: not only win a World Cup match, but propel into the advance rounds of the tournament. Rewind history tapes for a bit: Korea’s namjah’s qualified for the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, their first attempt at the Coupe de Monde.  An absence of 32 years later and Korea qualified for World Cup 1986. Again in 1990 and ’94 and ’98 with the similar refrain: some draws, a bit of progress, but no wins. Zip. Not until co-hosting the tournament itself in 2002 did Korea step up and get it’s first win (against Poland). Then another win against Portugal, followed by it’s first advancement into the Round of 16. Then you know the rest of that pretty amazing story. The KWNT team in contrast only came into existence in 1990. Qualified for the 2003 Women’s World Cup, it didn’t turn out so swell- and no wins.  Fast forward to the present: Korea not only qualified for the 2015 World Cup after a 12 year absence, they manage their first win (almost got it earlier with Costa Rica) and impressively stood with the 16 best teams of the world last week.

 

 

  • Not to mention a very decent draw with powerhouse United States pre-tournament – even then the feeling was that the best that Korea had to offer was still not yet showing on the pitch.  Quietly building in the background all these years in between, starting with the youth women’s team winning the U17 World Cup in 2010, followed by deep runs in the U20 World Cups in 2012 and 2014, that youth team emerged to a great extent this tournament.

 

 

 

which correlates with Cho So-Yun and Jeon Ga-Eul indicating their wish to start playing abroad.

The question remains, is there enough developing potential on the wings to keep momentum going? 

To help answer that question, the eujahs returned to Korea, not to yeots being thrown but as heroes being welcomed back.  That speaks volumes about what this means to the further development of women’s football in Korea. Steve Han, writing for Koream in the aftermath of Korea’s tournament:

Yoon and his team mentioned repeatedly that their ultimate goal at the World Cup is not only to achieve success for themselves, but to give opportunities for young girls in Korea to be inspired to play soccer. They emphasized the importance of their role in making a cultural change to create a better growing environment for younger female athletes in Korea. Many will agree that their success at this year’s World Cup could become the starting point for their greater goal.

 

Can’t agree more. A recent Washington Post article highlighted the visceral impact here in the US of the 1999 Women’s World Cup and how important it was to their development as young girls and future soccer players (it does go on to say 1999 should not be defined as the peak of Women’s sports; we await more records yet to be broken).  Think about how groundbreaking it was for Korea’s football program overall when they shattered expectations in 2002 in their improbable magical run  – the impact it had for younger kids, boys…and probably girls as well to possibly be inspired to take up football. Son Heung-Min was 10 years old when red devil fever swept millions into the streets. Ji So-Yun was 12 years old.  That watershed moment had to have made impact on these youngsters.  However, while the men’s team has had the lion’s share of attention and funding, the women’s side has had a shockingly disproportionate amount less in the years since the magic of 2002 had long faded from Korea’s immediate memory banks.

So much with so little:

Steve Han remarked in Koream at just how amazing of an accomplishment these past few weeks were for the Taeguk Ladies, what with the obstacles, cultural prejudice and odds stacked against them pre-tournament.

Let’s go into this a bit: culturally speaking, Korea is largely very machismo.  To be fair, like in many other parts of the world, women going into football was discouraged to a degree – in almost unspoken words that it’s too “manly” for a woman to want to participate in. Tell that to Park Eun-Sun who’s had to deal with humiliating and unfair accusations of being a man when she was plying the trade domestically. Undoubtedly a reason she left Korea to play for a Russian club. That’s not all the cultural prejudice Korean women have to face as a whole, but it’s one telling factor in the equation.  In a sendoff event for supporters before flying off to the World Cup, Jeon Ga-Eul gave an emotional speech about the costs of playing football as a women in Korea.

“It’s been a lonely journey for us to live as female soccer players in Korea…”       Jeon Ga-Eul

 

Jeon couldn’t finish the sentence before breaking down in tears (here’s the moment from the event):

 

It wasn’t until reading Steve’s piece that I was even aware of how disproportionate the funding gap between the men and women had been.

The KFA, South Korean soccer’s governing body, reportedly boasts an annual budget of $80 million, invested an approximated total of over $10 million in men’s national team in 2011, according to Sports Chosun. The KFA’s total expense on the women’s national team? Just $700,000. The fact that the South Korean women’s team survived as one of the 16 best teams in the world at the World Cup is a miraculous achievement.

Just $700,000. Let’s crunch that number, that’s less than 7% of the amount invested in the men’s team.  Steve goes on to quote Lee Elisa, a lawmaker in Korea and former head of an elite national training center who said, “If the KFA invest just one-tenth of what they spend on men’s soccer into women’s soccer, our women’s national team will win the World Cup.”  Well, it might take more than that, but point taken that the KWNT would be better equipped, with better facilities and training to be more internationally competitive.

 

But back to the future…

Hope this spurs change within the KFA funding structure. In light of the FIFA scandals and blowback from the multiple investigations – If there’s any scrutiny given the lack of transparency with the KFA’s finances, accountability of future KFA budgets should and must take this shockingly inadequate and shamefully disproportionate funding between the programs into account.

In more positive territory, as Steve mentioned, a new generation of Korean girls watching the tournament may end up considering taking up football -as opposed to aspiring to kpop flavors of the month.  The Taeguk Ladies were the very definition of inspiring – as well as continual trailblazing in the path that the 2003 World Cup squad initially forged.

More girls going into football help may address the depth issue. Ji So-yun injury just brought to light not only how irreplaceable she was, but exposed a glaring depth problem. It just might boil down to simple numbers. Consider this, Steve Han (again with the dope stats) writes in Koream: Korea has only around 1,700 female players registered in contrast to France where they boast close to 85,000 (additionally France has 36 professional and semi-pro teams in contrast to Korea’s 7 semi-pro teams that make up the W-KLeague).  Ok, you might say the glass half full perspective adds another reason why Korea did reasonably well in this tournament, but the other side says when critical players like Ji go down to injury, there wasn’t enough pool of candidates for anyone to reliably take her place.  Korea not only missed Ji during the France R of 16, they also lost before the tournament Yeo Min-Ji, their best in-form striker.

[one quick note post tournament: the KFA announced that they will be studying France among other countries around the world to see what they are doing to develop better women’s football. They’d better bring a ton of notepads].

 

Let’s not get too far ahead in the future, this was an invaluable learning opportunity for this current squad, and there’s the distinct notion they can even get better.  We’ve be remiss if we didn’t mention other players who made impact: Kang Yu-mi impeccable cross found Jeon Ga-Eul for Korea’s 2nd goal against Costa Rica.  Yoo Younga won the PK in that game that set up Ji So-Yun’s goal and Korea’s first in the tournament. In the knuckle biting game that was against Spain, already down a goal, Ji So-Yun intercepted the ball, threaded it to Kang Yu-mi, and again she delivered a fine cross, found Cho So-Hyun and her header equalized to give Korea a fighting chance. Let’s not forget substitute right back Kim Soo-yun – her “cross” was still amazing and not just mere luck as a few feet away lurking was Jeon (I think) who was open on the far post to head it in…had it not gone in already.  One goal, just one goal, can make all the difference.

Something to look out for in the radar: the environment in Asia for competitive women’s football, at least in east Asia is quite rigorous, China, Australia and 2011 World Cup title holders Japan are forces to reckon with. The world is getting smaller, and that’s especially true about women’s football.

Closer to home: The W-K League season continues and even played a few matches earlier today.

Operating since 2010, the WK-League, as you might expect, is playing in relative obscurity. Perhaps no longer-  that banner above advertising today’s game is from the Red Devil Korean community support Facebook page.

Fixtures are on Mondays – you can check out games live on KFATV via youtube and news updates can be found at the KWFF (Korea Women’s Football Federation) site.

 

 

 

Side note: the AP’s coverage in the US for the France v Korea R of 16 game fell abysmally short on many levels, namely they didn’t list a single Korean in the game. Not Ji So-Yun who was missing from the match. Not Kim Jung-Mi getting seriously knocked about Twice. Details other than one French player who score?  That’s a Negative. The one semi-interesting take away is that with the setting at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, it was practically a home match for Les Blues.

The French-speaking and France-favoring crowd sang “La Marseillaise” 3 times during Sunday’s game against South Korea…”Hearing them encourage us,” midfielder Amandine Henry said…”that really motivated us in the field …it brings us even closer to France.”

Ok then…home field advantage does matter: (anybody listening in Korea? Hello?  K-League needs your support. Asian Champions League games are woefully short on attendance on Korean soil.  For that matter, how about attending WK-League games?  Even in the US where soccer plays 5th fiddle, Portland’s women’s club is averaging somewhere around 15,000 spectators per game – incredible).

 

Extra time:

There’s too much to talk about without this post bursting at the seams, we might get to it in a separate Tavern Kickaround post but this happened a few days ago:

 

We’ll have some more details on this transfer news, but I’m on the run (and later tonight an amateur soccer game in which I have to mark players 10 years younger than me. Wish me luck – and hope I score against those young punks).

This marks my unofficial last post with the Tavern – though I will have a few more – I have some loose ends to tie up like the Way Forward for Korea Football – long delayed but I have an idea how to finish that.

This might not come as a surprise for longtime Tavern readers, but I’ve been planning to take a hiatus from the blog. I’ve been delaying a project to film and document my father and remaining aunt and uncles. They have a story about the family – surviving Japanese occupation and escaping from North Korea during the war.  There’s more, a mystery surrounding my eldest uncle, who was taken by Russian forces circa 1947 for participating in a pro-democracy rally. My dad traveled to Moscow after the fall of the Soviet Union and found a document that showed my uncle’s release from a prison gulag somewhere in Siberia in 1953: all political prisoners were released following Stalin’s death. Is my uncle still alive? What happened to him – did he stay or go back to North Korea?  Many unanswered questions.  I’ve got to film this before all the oral history of my family disappears.  Anyway, the Tavern will not go dark, but instead will continue on with the community of writers/contributors, all of whom I think are utterly awesome. And it will continue because of you, the Tavern goers, who just can’t stay away from dropping by and metaphorically drinking here. Alcoholics -all of you!  Well, the good kind, the kind that drinks from a deeper well and finds something refreshing about Korean football + a bit of international politics to boot.

 

Cheers / Guum-baay!

 

-The old Tavern Owner.

About Roy Ghim 381 Articles
The old Tavern Owner

4 Comments

  1. Really enjoyed your commentary and banter. Best of luck Roy. And would be great to get update as project progresses.

  2. Another nice piece. I was at Korea’s opening match against Brazil and at the 2nd round match against France. There was a nice sized Korean supporters group making noise against Brazil. Against France, that group was twice as large. While the support for France was strong (it was Montreal after all) the Korean fan noise was consistently louder. That support, as always, is a positive.

    I’ve said this before, but growth is a long-term and deliberate process. It took the United State many years to reach the level we were at when we won the 1999 World Cup. By the same token, you need to take advantage of the momentum of breakthroughs. You mention France; in 2000 there 39,000 registered female players in France. 2011 it was 54,000. Not massive growth. Then there was a sudden explosion in popularity off the back of the 2011 World Cup which took the country to 85,000 where it is now. The obvious skill of the team this year will continue to build on that as will the fact that they will host the 2019 World Cup.

    Culture and attitudes are important, of course, as you note. The issue of what women are supposed to do and the obstacles they face in playing are similar in Latin America and Africa. It takes time to break through those barriers. The success of this World Cup is a great time to look to do so. The best thing that the KFA can do now is:

    1) work to expand the number and availability of youth football programs for girls,

    2) expand investment in the national team including more frequent (i.e. not every 17 years) home friendlies – some nations (Australia) are so far from any real competition that friendlies are difficult to pull off. Korea does not have that issue with the likes of Japan, China, North Korea, etc. right there.

    3) Build exposure around WK-League (need to do a much better job of making it easier to find the teams, etc.), develop leagues below WK-League.

    4) Ensure the national teams at all age levels have their own equipment, their own uniforms, etc. Never again should they be wearing men’s uniforms, using hand me down equipment and so on.

    There is a great chance to build from here, but the KFA and the general public need to get fully behind it.

  3. Thanks Jim and Elliot! All respect! And Hal, great points you mentioned – and by the way: very envious you got to see in person the Korea /Brazil match! Absolutely agree with what you said and I think the neat part right now is seeing across the globe some measured progress for women’s football -in terms of shattering prejudice, expansion of the programs and so on. And yes, the KFA has a lot of work on their hands to capitalize on the momentum from WWC2015 – each point is right on (to your 4th point for the KFA, did they really give the Taeguk Ladies 2nd hand equipment?!? If so, pretty damning on their part). And to FIFA: continual shame on institutionalized disregard for women’s football – the fact they were relegated and assigned to playing on artificial turf – there’s no limit to criticism I have for that decision. That’s my new unofficial job: FIFA Shamer-in-Chief. It’s a lovely job and I don’t mind doing it. Lots more to mine from that hell-hole.

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