A goal to accumulateThose who can, do. Those who can’t, collect? At least in the case of the super soccer fan Lee Jae-hyung.
Mr. Lee, 43, wanted to be a soccer player when he was a young child, but his dream ended when his parents chose to send him to a middle school that did not have a soccer team. In Korea, if you want to have a chance to become a professional athlete you have to attend a special school that concentrates on athletics from a very young age.
Nevertheless, Mr. Lee chose to continue his passion, and after working at a small manufacturing company for a few years, he became a reporter in 1993 for Best Eleven, a monthly soccer magazine. In addition to covering soccer events, he started to collect anything and everything related to soccer, ranging from commemorative stamps to soccer shoes that were worn by members of Korea’s national team.
In his Samseon-dong home in northeastern Seoul, Mr. Lee’s collection is squeezed into a small room, barely big enough to hold three people. Mr. Lee points at one item in his collection for which he has a particular attachment. “This is priceless,” he says, his voice almost trembling. “As you can see, this sheet holds all the signatures of the players that took part in the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland. This is the beginning of our country’s soccer history.” He acquired the paper, which he holds like it were some sort of sacred scroll, in the summer of 2000 at an auction in Daegu, paying 6 million won ($5,000).
The little room that has become Lee’s private museum holds thousands of pieces of memorabilia relating to Korean soccer. Pamphlets that were printed before international matches, stamps celebrating the Korean national team, pendants that were exchanged before a game, and the list goes on.
Picking from a bookshelf a pamphlet that has lost its original color, Mr. Lee points at a picture that shows a somewhat familiar figure. “You see this is Humberto Coelho in his playing days when his club visited Korea in 1970 and played against the national team,” he says. Beneath the picture is a signature by the Portuguese player-extraordinaire himself, who at the beginning of this year took over coaching duties for the Korean national team. Mr. Lee acquired his signature at a recent press conference.
Beneath the room that holds the bulk of Mr. Lee’s soccer souvenirs is a basement where some of the bigger items are stored. There in little bags are soccer balls, soccer shoes and soccer uniforms sorted out.
Although he has not counted every item that he possesses, Mr. Lee estimates that he has close to 10,000. The house that he shares with his mother is too small, and he plans to move to an apartment soon where he hopes he can dedicate a bigger room to his passion.
To collect all these items, some of them bearing significant meaning in Korea’s soccer history, has taken a lot of time and money. Mr. Lee says that he started his search 20 years ago in the back alleys of Insa-dong, and he has traveled across Korea and the world, trekking to some 30 countries in all, going whenever he heard about someone in a possession of a rare item. Overseas, he bought badges, team uniforms and other soccer related items. He estimates that he has spent hundreds of million of won on his passion, all told. But when he looks at his collection, to Mr. Lee it is all worthwhile.
Soccer shoes thought to be from one of the first games ever played in Korea ― given by a British sailor to a Korean player in the 1890s ― found their way into Mr. Lee’s hands after he spotted them in an antique store in Insa-dong.
Personal guidelines written by the coach of the 1954 World Cup team, the late Kim Yong-sik, for his player is another item that ranks high on Mr. Lee’s list.
Mr. Lee is also in the possession of national team uniforms ranging from the 1960s to the most recent World Cup. Putting five uniforms on the floor in chronological order Mr. Lee holds up each of them, pointing out the material used for each. “As you can see, back then cotton was the main material,” he says, then picks up the current uniform. “Now look at what they have today. Light like a feather.” Mr. Lee waves the uniform as he speaks to demonstrate his point.
Players like Hong Myung-bo, who plays now for the Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer in the United States, have donated their used uniforms and soccer shoes to Mr. Lee after hearing about him from colleagues or friends.
Some might expect that the Korean Football Association should have a similarly impressive possession, but with only a small exhibition hall in the association’s headquarters and another hall at the Seoul World Cup Stadium, nothing comes close to what Mr. Lee has. Even some of the items at the headquarters were donated by Mr. Lee.
The lack of an organized effort to preserve Korea’s soccer history frustrates Mr. Lee, who thought that after the 2002 World Cup held here, someone would jump-start the process. But thus far, nothing.
“Right now we don’t have any plans to centralize items that have been collected by individual collectors,” says Sohn Seong-sam, an official with the Korean Football Association.
“It would be nice to have a place, otherwise people will forget what happened,” says Hong Deok-young, 77, who was the goalkeeper of the 1954 World Cup team. “They need to know how it was in the old days. What they have now is too small to make people really understand the soccer history of this country.”
Mr. Hong says that he contributed a few personal items to the Korea Football Association, but thinks what it has now is insufficient.
Mr. Lee’s concern is that an accident could quickly destroy the precious history that he’s gathered. Indeed, the house suffered a fire three years ago, but his collection was spared. “Then I was lucky,” he says. “But there is just no telling when it will happen again. I might not get lucky a second time.”
by Brian Lee