Ji So-yun's arrival could help WK League get the attention it deserves
Former Chelsea midfielder Ji So-yun has signed with Suwon FC Women, joining Korea's WK League for the first time in her storied career.
Ji joins Suwon just nine days after making her final appearance in a Chelsea shirt, when she lifted the FA Cup trophy for the fourth time in her career at Wembley Stadium in London on May 15.
After eight years as one of the Super League's top players, Ji announced at the end of April that she plans to leave Chelsea at the end of the 2021-22 season. That FA Cup final completed all scheduled fixtures for the London club, and Ji flew back to play in Korea for the first time since she graduated university.
She has played her entire professional career overseas, in Japan and Britain.
Ji, now 31, debuted with Chelsea in 2014 and went on to win both Player of the Year and PFA Players' Player of the Year.
She has made over 200 appearances for the London club, scoring 68 goals across all competitions with 37 in the Super League. Ji is tied for fifth in the all-time ranking for assists in the Super League, at 29.
Over those eight years, she has won six Super League titles, three FA Cups, one community shield and two Continental Cups. She was the first non-British player to pass 100 and 200 Super League appearances and is still recognized as one of the best — if not the best — international players ever to play in the British league.
Ji chose to leave Chelsea and return to Korea because she wanted to focus on the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand next July.
Ji's commitment to the Taeguk Ladies does not come as a big surprise. She debuted on the national team at only 15-years-old to become the youngest-ever Taeguk Lady, and has now scored 64 goals for the national team, making her Korea's all-time leading goal scorer across all teams, all divisions, all genders and all competitions earlier this year, overtaking Korean football legend Cha Bum-kun's record of 59 goals.
But the national team likely won't be the only Korean football institution to benefit from Ji's return.
While women's football is enjoying a huge boost in popularity globally, it still often remains an afterthought here in Korea.
In Britain the Super League signed the biggest broadcast deal ever globally in women's football last season, with games appearing on Sky Sports and the BBC and stadiums quickly starting to fill up.
Over in Barcelona, the women's team pulled in 92,000 fans to Club Nou when they beat Wolfsburg in a Champions League final last month, the largest crowd ever reported at a women's match and more people than the men's Barcelona team had managed to attract all season.
In the United States, one of the early champions of the women's game, the men's and women's national teams agreed to equally split all prize money from their respective World Cups, neatly sidestepping FIFA's unequal prize pool at the two tournaments.
But while these steps toward sporting equality continue around the world, women's football rarely makes headlines in Korea and the WK League, which is still only a semi-professional league, is almost completely ignored.
The arrival of Ji, legitimately one of the biggest superstars in women's football today, at Suwon FC could shine a much-needed light on the women's game.
Ji easily has the star power of other major sports figures that have returned to Korea and revitalized the local game.
Volleyball player Kim Yeon-koung pulled in the crowds when she played one season for the Incheon Heungkuk Life Pink Spiders last year, and the return of former major leaguer Kim Kwang-hyun to the SSG Landers and even former top prospect Lee Seung-woo to the Suwon men's team this year have both given their teams a boost.
But while Ji might raise the profile of women's league football in Korea, she still has to fight against a system that is heavily skewed against the women's game.
WK League games are currently played on Mondays and Thursdays, often starting at 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. That timing essentially shuts the door on any fan that has prior commitments like, say, a job or school. Although Ji may be able to raise the profile of the league and increase the media coverage, she can't do much to bring in the spectators with those game times.
"The league starts at 4 p.m. on Monday and Thursday," Ji said last week. "The day of the week, as well as the time, is regrettable. No matter how much they want to watch games, I question if fans can come at the time.
"That's the most disappointing thing."
BY JIM BULLEY [email@example.com]