A couple months back, while I was still thrilled by the call-up of Jeju forward Kang Sooil, I began typing an ode to the mixed-race Korean-American who was slated to make his debut in a Korean national team jersey. At the time, he was to me an inspiration as a mixed Korean. In many ways, he was our 1968 Power Salute. A statement that in a society as homogeneous as Korea’s, and consequently, as apprehensive of mixed-race/foreigners, mixed-race Koreans could still wear the Taeguk mark on a football pitch. However, yesterday, Kang’s dream was shattered with reports that he received a DUI charge, which seriously taints the chances of him playing for the KNT in the future.
Kang was born on July 15th, 1987 to a Korean mother and an African-American father. However, his childhood was filled with hardships which few players dreaming of a national team call-up have had to endure. At an early age, his American GI father departed from his life, and to this day, Kang refuses to publicly discuss his father in the media. Not to mention the inevitable racism that he had to face as a result of his darker skin colour. In an interview with the Korea Times in 2009, Kang says that he “used to regret having dark skin”.
As John Duerden put it in an eloquent piece for The Guardian, it’s not just about race. Kang’s two inspirational figures in his life were Hines Ward, an NFL american footballer and former Super Bowl winner who had a similar past to that about Kang, and his mother. The 28 year-old speaks of his mother with the media often, praising her for the way he was brought up. And he was, and is, to many, an inspiration himself.
You’ve surely all heard the story, however, of what happened when Uli Stielike included him in the call-ups for May 2015. Kang seemed closer than ever to realizing his dream – wearing the Korean national team shirt and gracing the pitch for his country of birth, the country that he loves. His call-up was one that was warranted – leading the line for Jeju United with his unpredictability and blistering pace, a unique and exploitable skill set that has few parallels within the Korean national team selection pool. And in spite of his inconsistent ways, Kang had been in good form and good spirits for Jeju for the entirety of the K League season. There was no objection to his call-up. Many looked forward to his energy on the pitch, and in training, for his infectiously joyous and jocular personality. It seemed that for the first team in decades, the Korean national team would feature, among its eleven, a mixed-race Korean.
And yet, in a fashion that was comedic to some, he suddenly was expelled from the selection, after testing positive for methyltestosterone, an illegal substance. The reason? Mustache cream. A 15-game suspension ensued. A horribly disappointing outcome to his first call-up.
Kang has been training with Jeju while waiting for his ban to be lifted. News of a potential suspended sentence circulated on media and news portals, as officials were willing to show some leniency due to his quick admission of his offence and because he was obviously not trying to dope intentionally. He came off as genuine, not as a cheater. An honest (albeit silly) mistake, not an attempt to contravene fair play.
But if the doping incident did not put the nail in the coffin to his KNT dreams, perhaps his latest controversy will. Reports surfaced yesterday, hours before Uli Stielike was to announce his squad for the September World Cup Qualifying matches (of course, Kang was not eligible), that Kang was charged by Korean police for drinking under influence. Kang had gotten drunk with a friend in Uijeongbu before sitting behind the wheel on the wee hours of Monday morning. He was involved in an non-fatal accident with a taxi, and was duly arrested. After originally telling police his friend was behind the wheel, he admitted upon further questioning that it was indeed he who was driving drunk. Uijeongbu police has confirmed that himself and his friend are under investigation, and could face a fine or even (although my research on Korean drunk driving laws indicates this is unlikely) jail time.
(In my research I found that deaths due to driving incidents are the 2nd highest in the OECD in Korea. And yet, Jae on Twitter tells me that in his time in the country, he has not come across one single anti drunk-driving advertisement. Not one. And he’s lived there a for a few years. Surely this speaks to a broader problem? In a culture which encourages drinking (or so I’ve heard), even with initiatives like designated drivers who will drive your car home for you if you call them, Korea still has such a poor record when it comes to drunk driving? Kang showed an immature childish lack of judgement here and fully warrants whatever consequence he receives.)
But back to the story. Essentially, it will be very difficult for Kang Sooil to represent the KNT after this. In Asia, reputation is very important, and a steroid ban and a drunk driving charge doesn’t bode well for Kang’s prospects of playing for the KNT. It would take very, very much to see Kang reintroduced to the national team scene. Many already suggest that his international dreams are pretty much over. They might not be wrong.
In the Korea Times, Kang once said, “I have three goals, first of all, I want to keep my place as a striker in the K-League, so that I can hope to play for South Korea in World Cup eventually. Second, I want to play in the Spanish or English league. It would be wonderful to play with (Thierry) Henry. Last, but not least, I want to marry a good and kind girl.” It is unfortunate to me, and to many, that Kang’s only experience of KNT duty will be that tantalizingly cruel taste of the training pitches of Paju.