Army soccer takes a friendly directionKorea’s amateur soccer players are about as formidable a force as its army. In fact, the two share a lot in common. At any given time, roughly 600,000 young men from 50,000 teams play gundesliga, a locally coined term mixing gunde, or “army,” with liga, German for “league.”
These players not only make fine corner kicks and move the ball downfield as quick as lightning. They also have the strength to march for hours after a game and a strong desire for sweets such as Choco-Pies.
Soccer in the military has grown tamer than years past, however. Gone is the abusive cursing of low-ranking soldiers by their superiors. Out is the torn flesh and welts. Slogans such as “A defeat means death” or “A soccer game resembles battle” are history. Today, soldiers of all ranks enjoy playing soccer.
Men who have served their two years in the Korean armed forces share at least one thing in common: They like to talk about their days playing soccer while in the military.
A typical story might go something like this: “When we were on the losing team, all of my teammates had to run around the field in circles for two hours.” Among the anecdotes that Korean women are most often told by their husbands or boyfriends, but hate to listen to, are those related to playing soccer in the army.
On a sunny day in April, pain and suffering seemed a long way off. On the grounds of the Jeoktoma regiment of the army’s Milmul division in northern Gyeonggi province, soldiers were stretching before a match. Most of them wore sneakers and colorful uniforms ― provided by the army, of course.
In the past, high-ranking soldiers were always positioned as strikers and midfielders while subordinates took defensive roles. When asked about this setup, Major Choi Seong-hun smiled. “That kind of position-by-rank soccer disappeared long ago,” he said. “These days even privates do not pass the ball to officers.”
Before the 2002 World Cup, army soccer resembled a mock combat situation, so much so it was nicknamed “combat soccer.” The World Cup changed that, Mr. Choi said, making it a lot more laid back.
“Now as many soldiers as possible try to participate, and [army] soccer focuses more on unity and physical training than winning.”
Like many regiments, the Jeoktoma regiment organizes soccer games on Wednesdays and holidays. Three squadrons and four companies take turns on the field.
A commander puts up prize money, which is distributed based on monthly scores. Winning soldiers often spend their spoils by dining at a restaurant off base or ordering pizza or Chinese food.
On this particular day, the third squadron and the first company got ready to face each other. Finally, the game began. Kicking up clouds of dust, the soldiers scrambled here and there.
Unlike regular soccer, the number of players on the field is unlimited, making long passes impossible. During the match, a mix of good technique and lousy shots were on display, but no one swore or got angry.
No cheerleaders were in sight, of course; this was male-only territory. The third squadron scored first, followed by shouts, in unison, of “1-0” from third squadron soldiers. Later, the first company followed up with a goal. The game ended when the third squadron put a second goal on the board.
The winning team flocked to an on-base karaoke hall, while the losers were immediately instructed to begin a physical training routine. Even though the arrangement sounds like discipline, the soldiers insisted it served to enhance their strength.
Meanwhile, in a karaoke parlor, the winning squadron celebrated its victory with a toast of sports drinks.
“I’d heard that playing soccer in the army was like being in combat, but when I came to the army, it wasn’t like that,” said Lance Corporal Son Hang-geun.
Unless the army is eliminated, gundesliga will live on. The tens of thousands of soldiers who finish their military duty each year have formed a strong foundation for Korean soccer.
by Jeong Young-jae