SPICE BOYSight of him on television or in magazines causes hearts to flutter like hummingbirds. Palms suddenly turn watery. Throats go dry, voices tremble and sometimes emit animal-like squeaks.
What's wrong? For Korean teenage girls, it's a bad case of Kim Nam-il Syndrome.
Young girls suffering from the syndrome shower a 25-year-old soccer player with notes saying "I'm all yours" and "Turn off the lights."
These girls willingly stay overnight outside Gwangyang Stadium to get Kim's autograph and to hand him a clutch of wilted flowers, melted chocolates and underwear in a rainbow of colors.
Kim seems an unlikely source for such an ailment. He stands about 180 centimeters, he weighs about 75 kilograms and his hair, is, well, a goofy blond dye job.
No matter. Kim has 1,841 online fan clubs with more than 700,000 members, who will camp out just for a peek at him entering a soccer arena or on the rumor that he might, just might, be showing up at a department store to sign his name.
In the K-League, young Red Devils, also called the W-Generation (from the World Cup), have found something to chant about and to drool over following June's soccer carnival.
In a way, Kim is like a Korean version of David Beckham, and Kim clones are easy to find everywhere. Bucket-shaped beige hats and green and orange striped T-shirts, an ensemble that Kim wore during a World Cup news conference, became sizzlingly hot items all by themselves. Beauty salons have become crowded with teenage boys -- yes, some boys endure this syndrome as well -- who want the Kim Nam-il Look. Heavy on the hydrogen peroxide, please.
Of 5,385 female Internet users polled in early July, Kim was the soccer player most girls wanted to date or, even better, spend a summer vacation with. Last week, a pair of soccer shoes that Kim wore during the World Cup was auctioned in a cutthroat bidding war on the Web for 6.3 million won ($5,000). Sports tabloids regularly compete with each other for a Kim Nam-il story on the front pages, a tale that rarely if ever has anything to do with sports. Headlines on these tab stories are:
"Kim Nam-il wants to get married in five years."
"Big Scoop: The girl of Nam-il's dreams is the TV actress Kim Ha-neul."
"Kim's been going steady with a girl for seven years."
Curiously, no one mistakes Kim for the dreamboatish Ahn Jung-hwan. Though groupies say Kim has James Dean eyes, Kim cannot be described as dashingly attractive, certainly no poster boy toy, like Ahn. Just average.
Before the World Cup came along, Kim as a soccer player was no great shakes, either. Asked about his popularity, Kim once said, with more than a touch of self-awareness, "Maybe it's my dyed blonde hairstyle and big eyes that draw attention."
O.K., O.K., it's not what Kim looks like, but what Kim is.
"He talks and acts like one of us," says Kim Chan-mi, who runs the soccer player's biggest online fan club -- Best Midfielder Kim Nam-il -- which has more than 480,000 members. "We feel like he is in the same circle as we are." Ms. Kim, in her early 20s, uses words like "carefree" and "innocent" to describe Kim.
"He's just irresistible," she says.
This much is clear: Kim's attraction is different from the sort of tug owned by a boy band with a manufactured image. For Korean youth, Kim brings excitement because he is so identifiable.
Indeed, his magnetism is more than a matter of mere fancy. Girls with the syndrome see qualities in Kim that they like. Kim often speaks with great self-confidence about what he wants and does many things by instinct. He can be brutally honest, which is part of his charm. When asked to say something to comfort his teammate Lee Eul-yong, who missed the penalty kick in the match against the United States, Kim said, "I don't have to console him. He deserves blame."
At a welcoming ceremony for World Cup soccer players on the evening of July 2 in central Seoul, with the President Kim Dae-jung standing alongside him, Kim said into a microphone for millions to hear, "Hi, there, this is your midfielder Kim Nam-il, who can't wait to go to a nightclub!"
While other soccer players that day solemnly recited names and brief greetings at most, Kim stood out, bidding farewell to formality. And that night in Gwanghwamun was the birth of Kim Nam-il Syndrome.
Kim's fans are as unpredictable -- and often as outspoken -- as he is. Their cheerleading is more than just simple and naive "I Love Yous." Girls wearing mischievous smiles show up at K-League games in which Kim plays and hold signs that read:
"Nam-il, let's just be happy with three children"
"Nam-il, why don't we shake a leg together tonight?"
"I'll take good care of your grandmother"
But most signs are simply versions of this:
"See you at the nightclub, my dearest Nam-il"
Kim Chan-mi says she was especially attracted to Kim after the World Cup match against the United States. "Kim stood his ground against nine American players, with no sign of being afraid, which looked so dignified to me."
Even before the World Cup, Kim tackled Zinedine Zidane during an exhibition, injuring the French star. After that match, several reporters asked Kim if he knew how much money Zidane was paid yearly. "Well," said Kim, pondering the figure, "please tell Zidane to feel free to take his salary from mine."
After receiving a bonus of 290 million won ($238,000) after the World Cup, Kim, in utter amazement, told the media, "At first I thought it was 290,000 won."
For Ms. Kim, it was love at first sight. She was among a group of girls who camped outside the Gwangyang Stadium. She now spends much of her days reserving train tickets for every city that Kim is scheduled to play K-League matches.
Kim does like the night life. As a teenager, he worked part-time for a nightclub in Seoul, hawking the bar to passers-by. Born on the tiny island of Muuido, near Incheon, Kim was the youngest son of a family that eked out a living fishing. At age 7, Kim won a running race at a school track meet, and that event seemed to solidify his future.
Kim Jae-gi, his father, says that he let the boy play soccer simply because of his son's "cerebral incapacity." The father's comment, which was accepted to be humorous rather than cruel, brought the elder Kim his own online fan club.
Kim played soccer until high school when, after being harassed by senior members of the team, he ran away from home. He took the job in the nightclub, which he liked, but quit when his father tearfully begged him to come back home.
Thanks largely to the Kim Nam-il Syndrome, Kim's K-league team, the Jeonnam Dragons, has been drawing more than 10,000 fans per match. Last year, the team felt lucky if 300 spectators showed up.
"So many of our fans now are teenage girls," says Jang Jae-hyun, the public relations manager of the Dragons. Mr. Jang says he constantly gets phone calls from parents who say they are being badgered to arrange meetings with Kim Nam-il -- "or their kids threaten to not study anymore."
In turn, Kim urges his teenage fans to study hard and not smoke. After the World Cup, Kim announced he wanted to start the Kim Nam-il scholarship to support juvenile soccer players. Details are forthcoming.
Lee Hoi-taek, the coach at the Dragons says, somewhat jokingly, that Kim was an incompetent player before the World Cup. Smiling, Kim, once more being just plain old Kim Nam-il, says, "Yeah, I was just a punk then."
by Chun Su-jin