Learning from a historic World Cup

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Learning from a historic World Cup

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The Korean women’s football team at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Round of 16 match against France at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal on Monday (Korean time). Provided by Korea Football Association

The Taegeuk Ladies made history in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup by notching their first-ever win and entering the knockout stage, and hopes are high for the future of Korean women’s football.

But in order to go even further in the next World Cup in France, preparations should begin now.

“Whether players in their early 20s participated in a match or not, making it to this stage gives them an enormous amount of experience,” said coach Yoon Duk-yeo after the team’s 0-3 loss to France in the Round of 16 on Monday (Korean time). “I believe we will be a better team four years from now.”

For many, the team’s performance in the World Cup came as a surprise because women’s football is largely unknown in Korea. Games in the semi-pro WK League are free to attend, but only about 400 people show up per match. From this year, the league has adopted a home-and-away system for the first time, with each team trying to attract fans in their home region, but there is still long way to go.

“It’s lonely be a woman footballer [in Korea],” said Jeon Ga-eul, who plays for the Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels, before entering this World Cup.

In men’s football, the number of fans rose dramatically after the team led by Guus Hiddink reached the semifinals at the 2002 FIFA World Cup. The women’s team is hoping for a similar boost and that the WK League will serve as the main platform for the growth.

The league, which began in 2009, doesn’t have a promotion-demotion system since there are only seven teams. But players say they are treated well, and according to WK League officials, players’ income isn’t much lower than in European leagues.

In addition, female footballers in Korea can pursue the sport as a full-time job.

“I practice in morning and afternoon as well and do personal training at night,” said Kwon Ha-nul who plays with military team Busan Sangmu. “It’s difficult to have another job while playing football.”

In Europe, most female footballers also have day jobs. On the Spanish team, which Korea defeated 2-1 in this World Cup, only five players are full-time footballers. The others make their living in other ways. Forward Priscila Borja, for example, works in a bakery.

The situation is the same for Japan, the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup champion. Excluding players for the top-ranked club INAC Kobe Leonessa, where Korean ace Ji So-yun played for three years from 2011, most players on the other nine teams have at least two jobs.

Korea hopes its system will attract more women to the sport. As of December, only 1,765 women have registered as footballers, which is far behind Japan (30,243), France (48,000) and Germany (262,220).

“In the 2003 World Cup, I heard the Korean team played like amateurs, but in this World Cup, I was very impressed by the offense from the young players that scored,” said Park Eun-sun, who made her second appearance in the World Cup. “If we have more women footballers like France, I think we can reach the quarterfinals or better.”

Experts said that it is also time to focus on fostering young talents. Japan, which topped the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany, ran a project from 2003 to 2014 to find future goalkeepers for women’s team, targeting students under the age of 15.

“We don’t have enough prospects who can follow the current ‘golden generation’ members,” said Hahn June-hea, a football commentator for KBS. “Just like Japan, we should grow players in certain positions with a special program.”

Playing more international matches can also help grow women’s football. Korea, ranked 18th in the world, played 10 matches before entering this World Cup. Excluding matches played in tournaments, the Taegeuk Ladies played only three friendly matches.

The two friendly matches played against Russia in Incheon and Daejeon in March were the Korean women’s first to be held at home since 1998. In 2014, Korea did not compete against any international teams, other than its four matches at the Cyprus Cup.

This is far behind other women’s football powerhouses. France, ranked world No. 3, played 11 friendly matches in 2014 in addition to its six World Cup qualifying matches. This year, the European nation played eight friendly matches.

“Through this World Cup, I hope the women’s team will play more matches,” coach Yoon said.

BY PARK SO-YOUNG AND JOO KYUNG-DON [joo.kyungdon@joongang.co.kr]
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