Soccer’s popularity gets new momentumIf you have lived in Korea long enough you may have heard the joke that the single thing Korean females most hate to listen to is guys talking about their old days in the army playing soccer. Guys can talk about this topic for hours, if not days, with a bottle of soju. It's that embedded in the Korean male culture.
Having just come back from my annual army reserve training and gotten a fresh injection of army culture, I might as well explain this phenomenon to you to give you a better understanding in case your Korean friend happens to bring up this topic and you start to wonder what has gotten into a guy who is normally as quiet as a mummy.
To sum it up in one sentence, soccer is a religion in the Korean Army. Nowadays, living conditions have improved and many barracks have basketball courts, but the main leisure activity is still soccer. You don't need a court. All you need is a yard and helmets to mark the goal lines and a game is on. Love of the game by officers and conscripts is evenly matched. Soccer tournaments between teams representing companies and battalions take place whenever there is free time. Winners will be given a pass to go home, the most valued prize for any Korean conscript who might be stuck in the mountains for months.
What happens to the losers? Trust me, you don't want to be on the losing end to find out. The short answer, of course, is more training in soccer. But it's done the army way. With players dressed in full combat gear, which can weigh up to 35 kilograms (77 pounds), and wearing gas masks, soccer games are played while temperatures in the shade rise above 30 degrees celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). If you are looking for the ultimate sauna this might be it. (Note: punishment may vary by unit.)
Soccer in the army is still the army version, with the first half often taking up an entire morning and the second half played well into the late afternoon. In the army they call this all-day activity “combat soccer.” Wednesdays are designated as “combat sports days.” Scores run well into double digits.
Rank plays a very important role here. The lower the rank, the greater the chances you will be defending the goal. If your rank is low, crossing the half line on your own is very, very risky. The higher the rank, the closer you are positioned to the opponent's goal. When I was a sergeant, the highest rank for a conscript, I virtually needed only to stand beside the goal to get a pass and kick the ball in. It did not matter where I stood or who had the ball. Regardless of my real talent, I was the ultimate default striker. At the end, because of this deceptive practice, I thought I was actually good. Such are the benefits that come from a well-established pecking order.
Soccer's popularity is gaining new momentum. With plans in the pipeline for two new Seoul-based teams to play next year, it is quite possible we will see another surge in the popularity of the K-league. While soccer had always captured the national interest when it comes to international events but failed to translate that popularity into a domestic following until last year's World Cup, it now has a second chance to sustain that momentum. If you ever wonder how soccer became embedded in Korea, you now know that there always was a big potential pool of fans. It was just a matter of providing the right catalyst
by Brian Lee