FORGOTTEN MANEvery step brings pain as the stooped man totters across the tiny apartment. Han Chang-wha, 77, used to be extraordinarily fit. In fact, his life was once all about soccer. His life now is all about survival.
Mr. Han played on Korea's first World Cup team, in the 1954 tournament in Switzerland, and is one of five living members from that squad. But 48 years later, nobody seems to remember Mr. Han, including his own government.
In 1980, Mr. Han lost his desk job at the Korean Amateur Soccer League office. Leaving work for home one night he stopped to buy some takeout chicken for his family. At the food shop, he got into a dispute with some other customers and wound up with a severe head injury.
"Somone hit me on the head with something," is how Mr. Han describes the incident. He points to a dent in his forehead. He suffered brain damage and had to quit work. He's still recovering -- his words come slowly, haltingly -- and he stays at home most of the time in a cramped, one-bedroom rental apartment in Suseo, on the outskirts of Seoul. He lives there with his wife, Yoon Hye Mi-ja, 62, and the couple's two grown children.
After his playing career ended, Mr. Han coached amateur soccer teams for six or seven years, and then took a staff position with the amateur league, which is now part of the Korea Football Association. Because Mr. Han has no pension to draw from those soccer days, playing or coaching, his wife has had to work several jobs, including nursing and selling insurance, to keep the family afloat. These days she labors for a marketing company.
Earlier this year, Mrs. Han attempted to talk to Chung Mong-joon, the president of the Korea Football Association, about her husband's situation. She called Mr. Chung's office and visited it several times, with no success. Finally, she sent a letter to him. She never heard back. (Phone messages left for Mr. Chung by the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition went unreturned.)
"For a long time we have been trying to get some sort of support," Mrs. Han says. "We only need a little bit of help but no one seems to care about us."
"We get by," offers Mr. Han, his thin voice filled with pride.
Oh In-bok, an official with the Old Boys Association, a group of former competitors and a subsidiary of the Korea Football Association, says that Mr. Han is not the only onetime athlete to endure economic hardship.
"There was no money in soccer for those who played in the old days," Mr. Oh says. "They just did it back then because they loved the game. Those whose offspring did well or who succeeded in doing something else are lucky, but most of them are not financially well off."
Mr. Oh says that a lack of support for older athletes has occurred because the athletes are usually unable to take organized action. Mrs. Han responds that "lack of support" is a euphemism for what has happened to her husband.
If World Cup fever has blanketed the peninsula, it has left Han Chang-wha in the cold. He wasn't invited to the World Cup's opening ceremonies in Seoul or to any of the matches. In truth, only one of the original surviving World Cup team members, Park Jae-seung, was invited. The excuse given by Korean soccer officials is a concern for security and the "health" problems of older soccer players. Apparently, only older players who were deemed physically fit to watch the opening festivities in Seoul were invited. It's unclear who decided who was fit enough and who was not, and why. The Old Boys Association says it does not have a complete list of names of the five surviving members, while only "active" members' whereabouts are known by the organization. In other words, little effort was made to find out what happened to old-timers like Mr. Han.
"How hard can it be to arrange for a car and some tickets for a man who represents a piece of Korea's soccer history?" Yoon Hye Mi-ja wonders as she offers a visitor a cup of tea.
Asked if being forgotten bothers him, Mr. Han pauses for a moment. "Well," he says, finally, "that's life."
The words bring a sigh from his wife.
Mr. Han gets up slowly from a living room chair. When his wife rushes to help him, he shouts in irritation, "I can walk! I can walk!" But in fact, he has trouble walking. He used to use a cane, but lost it. Sometimes he lets his wife assist him and sometimes he struggles by himself. Mrs. Han says it's probably rheumatoid arthritis that afflicts her husband.
"All those years of soccer damaged his knees," she says. "Now he hurts a lot. We've thought about going to a hospital, but we're afraid of the costs."
If the World Cup snub weren't enough, Korea's pension system for athletes has given Mr. Han a sharp kick in the groin. The system is performance-oriented, and that has made it difficult for someone like Mr. Han to earn enough points to qualify for a pension. For an athlete to be considered for a minumum pension of 300,000 won ($231) a month, he has to accumulate at least 20 points. If he competed in the Olympic Games, 90 points are awarded for a gold medal, 30 points and 20 points, respectively, for a silver or bronze medal. For World Cup competitors, 45, 12 and 7 points are given for winning the tournament, finishing second or taking third place. Lesser-known competitions, such as the Asian Games or the World University Games, generate fewer points. Mr. Han represented Korea in its first World Cup, of which most Koreans have little knowledge. In fact, most people who live in Mr. Han's apartment building do not know his connection to that famous sporting event. That Korea did so poorly in the event has not helped his case. Heroes are seldom forgotten.
"My father spent his whole life in soccer," says his son, Han Jeong-soo, 30, who wants to be an actor. "What did he get out of it? Nothing. I used to be really mad. But now I'm just resigned to the fact that nobody gives a damn."
"I'm not mad at anyone," Mr. Han says. "I don't expect any help. Anyway, I got to play in the World Cup."
Those two words -- World Cup -- seem to cheer and define Han Chang-wha, and in a large sense they do.
In 1954, the peninsula was best known for the Korean War that had ended only a year before. The country was battle-torn, and for it to take part in a worldwide sporting event was a significant achievement. For the players from the decimated little nation, the experience was overwhelming.
"To be honest, we never had any exposure of that magnitude," says Mr. Han, rubbing his aching knees. "Everything was just foreign to us. The city, the crowds. Everything." Prior to that World Cup, Korea's only international soccer experience was friendly matches with sailors from the British Navy who made stops in the country every year or so.
"The World Cup was special," Mr. Han says, eyes widening. "It was the best time of my life."
His life began in 1925 in Wangchung, Manchuria, where his father had been sent by the Japanese to serve as a policeman. Han Chang-wha used to play all day long with a soccer ball, sometimes alone but usually with his friends. Finding a place to play was no problem, he remembers, for he only had to step outside his house and the vast empty plains stretched in front of him. Stones served as goal markers and neighborhood games were often contested from the early morning until the sun dropped.
"For us, the morning was something like the first half and the afternoon the second," he says. "My feet never grew tired. I think I was 8 when I started to kick a ball. I don't know why, but I just loved to play."
His soccer passion grew during the years and continued through high school. Mr. Han did not play much when he attended the Shingeyung engineering college in Manchuria, majoring in architecture. Nonetheless, upon graduation, instead of opting for a normal job, he chose to compete for an amateur team called Army Engineering Unit No. 1101, which was managed by the Korean Army. At the time, only the military possessed any kind of organized sports and so he played for military teams, as did most of his peers. There were no endorsements from big corporations and certainly no ads featuring players. For them, it was pure enjoyment of the sport.
"I brought home a half bag of rice every month," remembers Mr. Han. "Forty kilograms; that was my salary." Most of the time his family ate all the rice. What they didn't eat, he sold to anyone to earn extra money.
After four years playing halfback with the 1101 squad, Mr. Han joined Teuk Mu Dae, a special army unit in which athletes served their mandatory military duty. After four years with Teuk Mu, his skills drew the interest of the national team, which he joined at age 29.
The army experiences were satisfying, for he was compensated for playing a sport he loved. He had everything, he says, except a pension. "Korea wasn't set up for such a thing back then," he says. And there is no way for Korea to go back and give him credit for that time because no records exist.
To qualify for the 1954 World Cup, Korea had to beat Japan. Originally, the two qualifying games for the Asian region were scheduled to be played one in each country, but anti-Japanese feelings in Korea did not permit that to happen. Simply, Korea refused to allow the Japanese team to come to the peninsula. Finally, Korea agreed to play the two qualifiers in March 1954 ?in Tokyo.
"There was no way that we could lose to Japan," remembers Mr. Han. "It did not matter whether they were better than us or not. That was totally irrelevant."
Before the team left Korea, President Syngman Rhee told the players, "If you lose, don't even think of crossing the East Sea."
By defeating Japan 5-1 in the first game and drawing 2-2 in the second, Korea earned the right to play its first World Cup.
A toothless smile crosses Mr. Han's worn face. "We did not go to soccer games in Japan," he says. "We went to war."
The 1954 World Cup was played in Switzerland. There were four groups of four teams. South Korea was placed in Group 2, along with West Germany, Turkey and Hungary, and the group's matches would be held in Zurich, Bern, Basel and Geneva.
The clear favorite in Group 2 was Hungary. In 1952, the Hungarians had won the Olympic gold medal in Helsinki. The "Magical Magyars," Hungary's soccer team was called, and for good reason. It was undefeated in its last 31 games, a winning streak that spanned an astonishing four years. West Germany and Turkey were no slouches, either. South Korea would be, by all indications, in for a tough time.
The tough times began even before the matches. Mr. Han shakes his head at how disorganized things were. The team landed in Switzerland only one day before its first match, against Hungary. The Korean team had to take a train to Busan, a ship to Japan and then catch a U.S. military plane to Zurich. Actually, the team took two different airplanes, arriving separately in Switzerland. There was no time to practice for Hungary, and Korea had no idea who they would face in their second group match.
"We went to bed and the next day we woke up and realized how big a game we had in front of us."
Korea's coach, Kim Yong-sik, did not say much before the Hungary match, for he surely knew Korea had little chance. "Our coach was excited and probably as nervous as the rest of the team," says Mr. Han. "So there we were waiting in the locker room to go outside and play. At last the call came, we walked out onto the field. My heart was pounding and I felt like it would pop out any moment."
Inexperience and lack of preparation caught up with the Koreans, who were pummeled by the Hungarians, 9-0. The Koreans also had the unenviable task of defending Ferenc Puskas, Hungary's speedy striker. "Puskas," says Mr. Han, "left everyone behind."
Korea's coach only used his starters in that game, so Mr. Han, a second-string defenseman, did not see action. He wanted to play but he understood the logic: The Hungarians were the best in the world. In desperation, Kim Yong-sik juggled his lineup for Korea's next match, with Turkey, and Han Chang-wan took the field at kickoff. Another embarrassment awaited the Koreans as Turkey won, 7-0.
"I got a pretty good workout that day," says Mr. Han, smiling again. "I never stopped running."
Under the rules used at that time, the Koreans did not play their third match with West Germany, since it would not influence the final outcome of their group. Perhaps that was a good thing, for West Germany wound up winning the World Cup, stunning Hungary in the championship game, 3-2. Earlier, in their group match, Hungary had thrashed the Germans, 8-3.
The 1954 World Cup would be remembered for several things: The tournament drew nearly a million fans, it was the first World Cup to be televised and the 5.38 goals per match was the highest figure in the event's history.
The lopsided scores shocked people back in Korea, for this was the same team that had lifted the spirits of the country in the World Cup qualifying matches against Japan only three months before. Soccer experts said that Korea's team had been in far over its head. Han Chang-wha sees things differently: The scores don't matter. Playing for his country, hearing the Korean national anthem, embracing the excitement, that's what is important.
"You don't forget those things," says the man who has been forgotten.
More in Features
[Shifting the Paradigm] With one epidemic under control, another is threatening Korean society
Kakao TV launches this month, takes on Netflix
[TURNING 20] In a sea of hate, change flourishes
Criticism of sex ed books for kids raises more questions than answers
When it comes to sex ed, this Danish author says just talk about it