Soccer team’s only mission: to beat North

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Soccer team’s only mission: to beat North

In the 1960s, the two Koreas were pitted against each other in a fierce struggle for domination on the peninsula. The rivalry with the North wasn’t limited to the military; it spilled over into sports as well.
The South Korean Yangji soccer team was created in February 1967 under the direct order of Kim Hyeong-wook, chief of the Korea Central Intelligence Agency, with only one purpose in mind: to defeat the North Korean soccer team in a possible future match. Just a year before the North Koreans had made headlines as they advanced to the final eight by beating Italy in the 1966 World Cup in England.
To lose to the communist regime was unthinkable. Mr. Kim took over the task of creating an elite soccer team that consisted of the best amateur players (Korea didn’t have a professional league at the time) and players from all three branches of the armed forces and the Marine Corps.
Players on the team were exempted from military service and received a monthly wage of 25,000 won, a huge sum at a time when 4,000 won bought a sack of rice that could last a month.
Support for the Yangi soccer team reached a fever pitch. In a country that was still recovering from the Korean War, players stayed at the central intelligence officers’ quarters while training was conducted at the agency’s exclusive soccer field in Imun-dong. At the time it was the sole grass soccer field in the country.
Players on the team received the best care available. “We ate meat almost every day. Can you imagine that?” says Chung Byeong-tak, the team captain, who now runs a youth soccer team.
Many players of the national soccer team were also members of the Yangi soccer team. Out of the 23 members of the national team, 11 belonged to Yangi and made up the first string.
In 1969, the Yangi team went abroad to Europe for training, a first in Korea’s soccer history. For three months, the team played matches in countries such as West Germany, Greece and Switzerland, accumulating a 26-18-2 record.
Nevertheless, the anticipated clash with the communist North never happened. Instead, the first test for the Yangi team was in Seoul against Japan at the Asian regional qualification rounds for the Mexico World Cup in October 1969.
A day before the game, the KCIA chief visited the players and asked them if there was anything he could do for them.
“I told him that we could use some special bonus. He gave us an envelope full of cash on the spot,” recalls Kim Hui-taek, vice president of the Korea Football Association.
The next day at halftime, Kim Hyeong-wook visited again. The game ended with a 2-0 victory for the South Koreans, but that day at noon, Mr. Kim’s resignation from the KCIA had already been announced.
His resignation and the improving relationship between the two Koreas led to the disbanding of the Yangi soccer team in March 1970, after three years of existence.
Lee Sae-yeon, the goalkeeper of the Yangi team and the national soccer team, still remembers the old days vividly.
“One day we were given a two-day leave. So we went out to Myeong-dong, got drunk and had some fun. After I came back, our coach summoned me and asked me what I did during the break. I told him I just went home,” says the goalkeeper.
But he was shown a detailed account of his activities. Agents from the agency had been shadowing the players the entire time.
“It was a much different time then,” Lee Sae-yeon says.

by Jeong Young-jae
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