The Call

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The Call

On Jan. 6, Kim Young-joo was having lunch with the Pocheon Jajak soccer team. The squad had just finished drills and had taken a break to eat at a nearby Korean restaurant in Gyeonggi province. Amidst the laughter and joking at the table, Kim's mobile phone rang.

"I'm a reporter with the Yonhap News Service," said an unfamiliar voice. "Did you get your call from FIFA?"

"About what?" Kim said.

"Well, we've got a story from the Associated Press that says FIFA has chosen its 36 World Cup referees. You're one of them."

Kim was skeptical. He knew that FIFA was making its decision on Jan. 7. Today is too soon to find out, he thought. But is it?

For the next several hours, rumors swirled. The following morning he logged on to the Internet and read a story that said he was a likely candidate. But still no official word.

At 7:10 a.m. on Jan. 8, Kim's mobile phone rang, waking up Kim and his wife, Kim Eun-sook. A reporter he knew with Sports Seoul said, "I've read the official release. You're in."

A dazed feeling overwhelmed him.

Kim's wife shot awake and started crying. For almost 10 years, every sunrise, she had prayed that her husband, who does not attend church, would make the cut. Taking his hand, she said, "You've worked so hard for this."

At 9:30 a.m., Kim's phone rang once more, this time from an official with the Korean Soccer Assocation. "Congratulations. Your work has paid off. You've made it."

Jan. 8 passed like a dream, and it was only when Kim received a congratulatory orchid from the president of the soccer association that it sunk it. He had done it. As he looked at the orchid, he thought, Maybe it was my wife's prayers.

In less than two weeks, Kim will become the first Korean to referee a World Cup match -- the crowning achievement for any soccer official. Only the best become World Cup referees. Park Hae-young and Jeong Yeong-hyeon were linesmen in the 1994 U.S. and 1998 France games.

But this first is also a last: At age 45, Kim must retire at the end of this year according to FIFA and Korean Soccer Assocation regulations. Working a World Cup game on your home soil is a grand way to end a 15-year career, and a goal Kim worked hard to realize. Earlier this week, he found out that the Asian Soccer Club voted him No. 1 referee of 2001. "You have to try harder than anyone else," he says.

"It's harder to become a FIFA World Cup referee than it is to become president of a country," says Kim Dae-young, a Korean referee and colleague of Kim Young-joo. Kim Dae-young has known Kim Young-joo for 10 years. Even back then, Kim Dae-young was impressed by Kim Young-joo's professionalism. "You give him a job, and he sees it to the end. No one rates as good as him."

Four years ago, Kim Young-joo almost gave up his big dream. He heard a rumor that he was on the short list for the 1998 World Cup in France. "I gave it my best shot," Kim says, "and I didn't make it."

Deeply disappointed, he considered giving up trying for the World Cup.

His colleagues at the Korean Soccer Association told him, "It's not because you're not good enough ?because you are good. We have also let you down." So Kim tried again.

Over the next four years, FIFA monitored prospective referees for the next World Cup, including Kim. Meanwhile, the Korean Soccer Association promoted Kim to the Asian Soccer Club, which makes recommendations to FIFA. The pressure grew.

"Games are tough," Kim says. "If you make a mistake, athletes and reporters can trash your career."

It's 7 a.m. on a late spring day, and Kim Young-joo is standing in Seoul's Hyochang Stadium, a facility known as the "soccer maker." Almost all of Korea's best soccer players have proved themselves here.

For the past 20 years, Kim has worked out here, through sunshine or snow. A soccer referee has to be in top shape; a referee must be within 9 meters of the action to make a call. Kim has to be able to keep up with the swiftest of athletes, many of whom are half his age.

Kim sets the Casio watch on his left wrist and the Polar watch on his right wrist to zero. FIFA gave him the Polar to monitor his exercise regime. Every two weeks, he uploads data on the watch to his computer and sends the information to FIFA. The Casio is to time games and timeouts. "I've gotten so used to timing everything," he says. "I time life."

After stretching, Kim starts running laps around the track. A handful of people are also running, but within 20 minutes, he has passed them all at least once.

He stretches, then looks at his right watch. "One thousand sixty calories, got to do more," he says. After drills, Kim stops his watch, then restarts it as he heads out for breakfast.

Kim Young-joo grew up in the countryside near Daegu, in southern Korea. Like most Korean boys, he played soccer. Once, as a middle school student, he saw a Korean referee, Maeng Gwang-seob, on television, and thought, "That's an impressive looking guy." Maeng's expression was stoic, his hair slicked back, and his uniform perfect. But it was only a passing thought. Afterall, most boys want to be the star player.

Kim played soccer in the army. Afterward, once he started working, he played right wing for a club team. The more he played, the more he enjoyed the game. "How you play soccer is a reflection of your mind, body and life," he says. "The better you become, the more you realize how much there is to learn."

He moved to Seoul in 1983. In 1987, he heard that the Seoul City sports division was recruiting referees. The best referees were at the Korean Soccer Association, but that association only hired retired professional athletes. Remembering Maeng, Kim tried out.

Kim placed first among 220 applicants and got a job with Seoul. Within a year, the Korean Soccer Association changed its pro-only rule because of a shortage of referees. About 200 people tried out. Kim made the cut along with 31 others. From then, he worked his way to FIFA.

"It can be a lonely job," Kim says about being a referee. Once a referee reaches the professional level, they often travel solo to foreign countries. On one of his trips to Japan, Kim was struck by the importance of family. "I want to treasure the people around me," Kim says. "I hope to linger in people's memories."

His dream for this World Cup is to see the opening or closing World Cup match -- as a referee. As a Korean, he will not be allowed to referee a Korean game.

After this year, he hopes to become a referee supervisor. If all goes according to plan, 2002 will not be an ending, but one period in a full life.

Whistle Work

what it takes to make the FIFA referee cut

Pass the FIFA fitness test

Run at least 2,700 meters in 12 minutes (most referees are able to run more than 3,000 meters in that time).

Run 50 meters in 7.5 seconds.

Run 200 meters in 32 seconds.

Run the 50 meters again.

Run the 200 meters again.

English-speaking ability

The way the referee deals with players, his feelings for the game, his control of the game, and the accuracy of his decisions are also significant factors.

by Joe Yong-hee

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