Women’s football faces gloomy future in Korea

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Women’s football faces gloomy future in Korea

The young Taegeuk Ladies’ run to the semifinals of the U-20 Women’s World Cup has been a cause of celebration in Korea, where the sport typically generates only minimal interest among the masses.

But some observers worry that this might be as good as it gets for a long time, as fewer parents are encouraging their girls to get involved in the sport and funding for women’s football teams at schools is drying up.

“If this trend continues, it’s only a matter of time before Korea drops to the bottom of Asia, like in the 1990s,” said Jung Yeon-sam, manager of the Hyundai Info-Tech High School women’s team in Ulsan. “To be frank, we have no hope after the current national U-17 squad,” which is mostly made up of players between the ages of 15 and 17.

It marks a turnaround from just a few years ago, when strong supports helpd Korean women’s football rise to dominance. The current stars of the U-20 women’s squad, such as Ji So-yun and Kim Na-rae, have played organized football since elementary school. Having learned the fundamentals of the game at an early age, both players developed into world-class players at their level.

Ji and Kim are part of a generation that benefitted from various youth support programs initiated by the Korea Football Association after the success of the men’s national team at the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup. With the surplus of funds raised from the World Cup, the KFA and Korea Women’s Football Federation (KWFF) began pumping money into girl’s and women’s football teams around the country and funding youth football tournaments. The KFA also held training sessions at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi for talented prospects aged 12 and up.

“The players of Ji So-yun’s generation are definitely different from those of previous generations,” said Lee Sang-yeop, the manager of the women’s national football team. “Since she started football at an early age, Ji has solid fundamentals, balance and good football intelligence. She can hold her own against any team.”

Broad support for women’s football, however, is declining, and it’s becoming quite noticeable.

There are just 18 girl’s football teams at the elementary school level around the country, compared with 24 at one point a few years ago.

The number is expected to decrease further in coming years, as several teams currently can’t compete in tournaments because they don’t have enough players on their teams. In Seoul, just one elementary school - Songpa Elementary School - has a girl’s football team at this point.

The biggest obstacle for youth teams is funding, which has been evaporating in recent years. As a result, schools have simply dumped their football teams.

“We started to see elementary school teams disband when funding began to dry up two years ago,” Lee said. “Nowadays, there aren’t too many parents who encourage their daughters to get involved in sports. Athletic girls tend to move toward basketball and volleyball, as those sports provide them with the potential to make the most money as a pro.”

The move by elementary schools to cut their teams has rippled to the next level of the sport as well.

“As elementary schools get rid of their football teams, middle school and high schools are following suit,” Jung Yeon-sam said. “There’s a total of six university teams in the country, but Yeungjin College decided not to accept new recruits starting this year. As a result, some women graduating high school this year will have difficulty continuing to play football.”

While the decreased funding at the grassroots level of women’s football is a big challenge, there are problems at the professional tier as well.

On average, the manager of the men’s national football team makes 700 million to 800 million won ($590,800 to $675,200) per year. However, the manager of the women’s national team does not earn an annual salary. Rather, the manager gets paid based on the number of days the national team gathers for practice, friendly games and tournaments. It’s the same for those managing school teams.

“We do not get treated as well as our counterparts managing men’s teams,” said a women’s football team manager who wished to remain anonymous. “How, then, can we expect women’s football to develop when managers don’t even have long-term prospects?”

Kim Dae-gil, a KBSN football analyst, said there are some solutions.

“The WK-League [a semi-pro league for women] needs to start youth clubs,” Kim said. “In addition, the KWFF needs to make good use of youth football academies and facilities to get girls involved in the sport from an early age.”

By On Nu-ri [jason@joongang.co.kr]
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