Small-town boy makes it big in Buenos Aires

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Small-town boy makes it big in Buenos Aires

Kim Gwi-hyeon, a 20-year-old defensive midfielder from the tiny island of Imja, South Jeolla, inked a three-year deal with Club Atletico Velez Sarsfield of the Argentine Primera Division on Tuesday.

“Now my goal is to earn a starting spot on the squad,” Kim said. “Our team is set to compete in the Copa Libertadores [a continental tournament], so I think I’ll have plenty of opportunities to compete in games.”

Established in 1910, the Buenos Aires-based club is considered one of the top teams in Argentine professional football.

Kim was born the youngest of five siblings to parents with hearing impairments. While he had always dreamed of playing professionally, the island, with a population of 3,740, did not have youth football teams. Having flashed his natural talent in neighborhood games, his uncles began promoting their nephew to youth football coaches. It was not until Kim reached the sixth grade that he was able to join a youth club based in Namhae, South Gyeongsang.

But less than two years later, the team was disbanded because it wasn’t able to meet certain provincial requirements.

With youth football academies and clubs charging an average of 1 million won ($864) per month, it was impossible for Kim to join a football club. His family’s humble economic circumstances made sure of it.

But recognizing his talent, Kim’s Namhae coach and former Argentine youth national football team manager Rodolfo Armando made him a dream offer. The Argentine manager would take Kim, then 13-years-old back to Argentina and mentor him.

“Armando is a father-figure to me,” Kim said. “If I hadn’t met him, I’d probably be working in one of the onion or bay-salt farms on Imja Island.”

Kim went to Argentina with Armando at the age of 13, but adjusting to life in the new environment proved to be tougher than he expected.

“Argentine kids start playing football at the age of 4,” said Kim. “Since I started playing organized football for the first time when I was 13, I was way behind my peers.”

As Kim tells it, life in Argentina as a minority was tough, but it helped shape him into the person he is today.

“There’s severe discrimination in Argentina towards minorities. But I think that actually helped me become tougher and more determined to make it.”

Kim attacked his new challenge the only way he knew how - by training harder than everyone else.

Kim beat 6,600-to-1 odds by making Velez Sarsfield’s youth football program and trained harder than ever, putting in extra work at night to maintain his spot on the team. He went to school during the day, practiced with the Velez Sarsfield squad after school, went back to class to improve his Spanish, then headed back to the field on his own time to work on fundamentals. Sure enough, Kim earned a starting spot on the Velez Sarsfield U-15 squad and was named its captain.

Kim continued to progress at a steady rate and was invited to an under-20 national team training camp in 2008 in Ulsan, South Gyeongsang. But his stay with the national team was short-lived after he injured his knee three days in.

“The camp was held during the offseason so I was not in good physical shape,” said Kim.

While a spot on the national football team is still in the back of his mind, Kim is focusing on his current challenge.

“I want to play professional football in Argentina and earn my coaching certificate as well,” Kim said. “I will return to Korea someday and start a youth football academy for kids from low-income families like myself. Like my idol, Hong Myung-bo [former national team captain and current U-23 national team manager], I want to help needy children in the future.”


By Kim Min-gyu [jason@joongang.co.kr]
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