Getting a kick out of being alive
“Should have headed the ball,” shouted a player from the bench. “Should’ve gone right in,” yelled another.
It was a cold, windy day, but the players did not seem to mind. It seemed like a typical soccer game with instructions yelled from the bench and ball possession changing rapidly, but one thing separated this match from others the players were all over 70 years of age.
The Seongdong Longevity Soccer Team only accepts players who are 70 or older and most of them live in the Seongdong district of Seoul. The oldest player among the 30 on its roster is 77. On a recent Saturday, the team was playing the Seongbuk district team, which also consists largely of septuagenarians.
“We are the only district-based soccer squad with members who are 70 years old or older,” said Kim Kil-mun, 70, who handles public relations for the team. “Most of our opposing teams have some players who are 70 years old or older but they also have many younger players who are in their 60s.”
The team was founded in April 2005 and has played a different team almost every Saturday since then. Cold winds and pouring rain have rarely stopped them. When it rains heavily professional soccer games are sometimes suspended but these players said bad weather was not an acceptable excuse for a postponement. The principle they stick to is they play so long as they can see the field.
“If we take a day off when it rains, or snows or wind blows, when do we get to play?” said Hong Jong-hak, 74, the president of the team.
A soccer game usually consists of two 45 minute halves. However, for the longevity teams, the playing time consists of four quarters of 25 minutes with a 10-minute breaks between the quarters. This is designed to make the game easier for the senior players.
After the first quarter, Kim Oh-deuk, 71, walked from the pitch to the bench. A right winger, he introduced himself as an official interpreter of the Korea Seniors Association and the secretary-general of the team.
“We had an absolutely dominant game [in the first quarter],” Mr. Kim said, though the first quarter ended without a goal. “We are going to win for sure.”
Mr. Kim has been playing soccer since he was in middle school. He was also a member of the Army’s Sangmu team, which consists of soldiers doing their two-year military service. Twenty years ago he was a founding member of the Seongdong district team for those in their 50s.
Like his teammates, Mr. Kim denied that it was hard for him to play. “I’ve been trained,” he said. “I get up at six every morning and play soccer. These days, the young people don’t come out because it is cold, so I run around a school playground on my own. I know my own body. When I feel it is dangerous, I go easy on myself.”
Mr. Kim insisted that although the Seongbuk district team had players in their 60s, his team is better. “Our team is invincible. We have all the best players,” he said.
Most of the members of the longevity team played soccer when they were young. Some played for their school teams, in the army or even for a professional soccer team. Most of them played in teams based in their neighborhoods and moved from one team to another as they aged. Most of them exercise regularly, usually in the morning. During the week, some of them still go to work every day.
Kim Kil-mun, 71, who plays center forward, said he is an executive of the Korea Apartments and Buildings Management Association. Mr. Kim was taking a break on the bench during the second quarter. He said he also played during the week and on Sundays with “young fellows” in their 30s and 40s.
“I’ve known them for a long time. They call me brother, and their fathers call me brother too. It is more fun playing with good players, though I am slower in running,” he said. “Playing with them, I feel like I am getting younger.”
Mr. Kim said the government’s welfare policy should refocus and concentrate on people’s fitness as a means of prevention, so that people don’t get sick.
“There is a saying, ‘99-88-234,’ which means ‘living healthy until one reaches 99 years old and then get sick for two or three days before dying,” Mr. Kim said. (“88” in Korean has the same pronunciation as healthy and “4” is pronounced exactly the same as death.)
“Living healthy is good for one’s family, and for society as well,” he added.
The game reached the third quarter. The atmosphere was as heated as ever, with players on the bench screaming at the players on the pitch. “Keep the ball inside the line,” one shouted, and he was soon followed by a teammate shouting, “Move fast into the opponent’s half.”
“Here everyone thinks he is better than others. But nobody likes being grumbled at,” said Kwon Seok-hee, 71. “When somebody complains, I just pretend not to have heard him. Then he stops.”
Mr. Kwon used to organize a soccer team called Victory in the 1980s. It included famous actors like Choi Soo-jong, Baek Il-seob, Kim Soo-mi and Jeong Hye-sun. He would take them to North America to perform in exhibition games for homesick Korean immigrants.
As the game entered its dying minutes the Seongdong team was leading 2-1, which put the team members in high spirits.
Choi Seong-won, 71, was still watching the game intently. He was staring at some younger players in another game who were wearing caps. He had a disdainful expression on his face. “They don’t need to wear a cap,” he scowled. “They need to head the ball.”
Finally, the game ended with a Seongdong victory and the triumphant players prepared to leave for a late lunch and a glass of beer.
They changed into regular clothes after removing their uniforms, which consisted of a white shirt and black pants donated by the Korean Urological Oncology Society as part of a sponsorship deal. The team acted as a goodwill ambassador for the society a few years ago, to raise awareness about prostate cancer.
Nam Jong-u, 73, the goalkeeper, suffered from the disease and 14 years ago had to have one of his testicles removed, a procedure that involved two painful surgeries. Mr. Nam said he was completely cured. He said he overcame the cancer by playing for his soccer team, which improved his mind and body.
“Exercise helped a lot.I fought to win,” he said. “A good mental attitude is vital.”
The men began to leave the ground. They walked slowly to the exits.
One player began to complain that the goalkeeper of the opposing team was so good that he could not score any goals. “The goalkeeper, that young fellow [who was 62], was really good, even sliding to catch the ball,” he said. “Anyway, it didn’t matter. We still won.”
And sometimes winning is the best way to know that you are still alive and have everything to live for.
By Limb Jae-un Staff Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]