At 15, a dropout goes for small bucksWhen you dial the cell phone of Koh Myeong-jin you can hear the music of a popular Korean pop song instead of the customary bell sound that greets a caller. Like his peers, Myeong-jin loves to play computer games and is well aware of what is hot and what is not. Having popular pop songs as a phone tone is definitely hot.
Nevertheless, unlike his middle school friend, Myeong-jin has chosen a different path. At age 15, he is the youngest player in the K-League. Technically, he is not yet a full professional, for he plays in their minor league, for the Anyang LG Cheetahs.
An LG scout started looking at him last year. When the team contacted his family, Koh decided to quit school and become a professional.
His reason is simple: “If I stayed in school, I would be playing until I dropped out. I did not want that. Besides, attending classes had little meaning for me. I was not really learning anything.”
Myeong-jin says that his workload as just a soccer player has dropped nearly 90 percent from when he was in school. “This is so much easier on my body.”
Myeong-jin is one of the 12 young men competing in the lower tier of the K-League who dropped out of school to play soccer for small bucks. An LG official says that the minor league, formed in 2000, serves to develop young players like Myeong-jin and it also gives players who can’t compete in the K-League an opportunity to play. Soccer players in the K-League’s upper level use the lower division to come back after rehabbing injuries.
Sports authorities such as Lee Yong-soo, a professor of physical education at Sejong University, say that opting early for the pros has its benefits as well as its downsides.
“If you go pro, you can play on grass under a very systematic program,” says Mr. Lee. “Playing on grass enables young players to develop better skills and it protects a young body from injuries. But quitting school is a quite a serious matter that may change one’s life forever.”
Mr. Lee says that middle school players who quit school in order to turn pro do it for a variety of reasons. One is to avoid to being drafted into the army, mandatory for any male who has a middle school diploma.
As more and more kids decide to quit school, the old system of schools serving as breeding grounds for soccer players is changing. Under that system, schools were responsible for supplying players to colleges and pro teams. Now, pro teams grow their own players.
Not a bad idea. The performance- oriented school system may undergo a change, and young players might get some relief from a murderous school schedule they have to endure.
Acting as a province’s center for developing talent, youth soccer clubs should be created so that talented kids can play soccer after school and during vacations, on teams based on their ages. That way, budding stars will be able to get their diplomas.
Luring kids from school is a dangerous way to find talent. Out of 10 kids, how many Ronaldos will there be? For teams, the risk is minimal, but for the players much more is at stake.
After all, there is life after one’s career is over. And that career is seldom very long.
by Brian Lee