Good looks belie a player’s strong willAt first glance, Baek Ji-hoon is just another handsome soccer player.
But don’t let the pretty face fool you. The moment the 20-year-old captain of Korea’s national youth soccer team opens his mouth, he becomes a shy country boy with a distinctive dialect, flashing that “aw shucks” smile.
“Man, do I really have to do this?” he said while posing for photos during an interview at the practice ground of his club, FC Seoul. “This is embarrassing.”
There was certainly nothing embarrassing about his performance earlier this month at the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship, where he scored a dramatic go-ahead goal in injury-time against Nigeria in a preliminary round game.
The goal placed Baek in the national consciousness in Korea, but it isn’t the first thing on the mind of the young midfielder when discussing the event.
Judging from his facial expression while talking about the youth championship, it was obvious Baek, as captain of the youth team, feels responsible for his team’s quick exit.
“We promised our fans we would at least reach the semifinals, and we didn’t even get past the preliminary round,” he said. “I feel terrible.”
But when the subject of the aforementioned goal was brought up, Baek beamed and spoke with the enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store.
“It rained near the end of the game, and I knew if the goalkeeper stopped Park Chu-young’s shot, the ball would just slide to his right.
“And I just ran in that direction. I saw the goalkeeper moving to my right, and so I aimed for the left corner. I knew I got off a good shot, but I didn’t think I had it in because I couldn’t see the ball.
“Then my teammates started running toward me. I was just so out of my mind I forgot to pull off my goal celebration.”
When pressed to reveal the details about the planned routine, the country boy inside came out.
“Oh, some tumbling, like what (former national team player) Ko Jong-soo used to do,” Baek said almost guiltily. “I probably wouldn’t have done it with as much flair, but it would’ve been fun.”
What about the goal itself, which came off a rebound at a nearly impossible angle?
“Nah, I wouldn’t be able to score it if I had to do it again,” Baek said. “I was really lucky.”
Baek is also lucky to be blessed with idol-star looks; thanks to his impeccable features, he has been drawing a lot of attention of late. Though he said he’s not sure whether he really is an attractive man, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or a plastic surgeon, to realize Baek is conscious of how he may come across to the public.
Like many 20-year-olds, Baek is running a mini homepage in Cyworld, the nation’s largest personal blog operator, and he posts pictures of himself along with journal entries. More than 300 users have become his “first cousins,” cyber lingo for those who can gain access to more private information. Another 3,000 people are on the waiting list to get that entitlement, but Baek said he is only letting in personal acquaintances because he doesn’t want to start arguments with strangers.
To become an up-and-coming soccer hotshot with FC Seoul, Baek has literally come a long way. He grew up in Jinju, South Gyeongsang province, where he began playing the sport as a fifth grader. His ball-handling skills caught the eyes of several high school coaches early on, and he ended up at Andong High School in North Gyeongsang province.
Straight out of high school, he signed with South Jeolla province’s Chunnam Dragons in the K-League, but despite the 250-million-won ($245,000) signing bonus, he toiled as a substitute for two seasons.
Baek arrived in Seoul via trade in January, and so far has lived up to the expectations placed on him when he first joined the pro ranks.
At 175 centimeters (5 feet, 7 inches) and 65 kilograms (143 pounds), Baek is certainly not a big player by today’s standards. He wistfully said he wishes he could be at least five centimeters taller, but quickly added that he isn’t too concerned about his size because there are many small players.
One of them is Park Ji-sung, who, all 176 centimeters of him, is heading off to the English Premier League to play for one of its top clubs, Manchester United.
“I am envious of him,” Baek said. “But I am not thinking of playing overseas just yet.”
Still, he lists a foreign soccer player as his role model. Baek said he looks up to the charismatic and multi-talented Zinedine Zidane, the French stalwart of Spain’s Real Madrid, and added he would like to have the kind of long and successful career that Zidane, 1998 FIFA World Player of the Year, has enjoyed.
Such is the determination belied by Baek’s good looks. Remember, don’t let the pretty face fool you.
by Jeong Young-jae