The unparalleled influence of Kim Yong-sik

Football in Korea has long been played out against a political backdrop which has meant inspirational figures are often overlooked.  Not this one.  Here's Michael Hudson.

In July 1910, the month before Japanese troops surrounded Seoul’s Changdeokgung Palace, deposed the Emperor Sunjong and formally annexed the whole Korean peninsula, Kim Yong-sik, son of a Protestant minister, was born in the southernmost province of what is now North Korea.

Kim’s footballing ability was apparent from an early age: after helping Gyeongshin High School to the Pyeongyang final of the All Joseon Football Championship he was signed up to play for the newly-formed Gyeongseong FC, Seoul’s first football club.  In the four years that followed, Gyeongseong and Kim became double national champions and the only non-Japanese winners of the Emperor’s Cup, defeating Bunri University at Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine Stadium in the summer of 1935.

With the side from the Korean capital now officially the ‘best team in Japan’, their players began to attract attention on both sides of the East Sea. Kim was selected to represent the Japanese at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, playing in both the 3-2 win over Sweden and the 8-0 quarter-final defeat to World Cup holders, and eventual gold medallists, Italy. He returned briefly to Tokyo the following year, where he played for Waseda University before accepting a job offer from the Dong-a Ilbo, a Korean newspaper which the Japanese authorities had already shut down on four separate occasions. In June 1940, together with Kim Sung-gan and future national team coach Lee Yoo-hyung, he made his final appearance for Japanese national side in a 1-0 win against the Philippines, part of a four-team tournament including sides from Manchuria and the Republic of China held to commemorate the 2,800th anniversary of the first Japanese emperor’s ascent to the throne.

Returning again to Korea, Kim played and coached at Pyeongyang FC until 1942, when the Japanese suspended football for the remaining duration of the Asia-Pacific War.  It would be another three years before he was able to play again, taking part in a specially arranged competition to mark the Japanese surrender and the end of colonial rule.  For Kim, Korea’s independence also meant the chance of a second Olympic football tournament.  In August 1948, the very same month the Republic of Korea was proclaimed in the U.S.-controlled southern part of the peninsula, a crowd of 6,500 fans at Dulwich Hamlet witnessed the South Korea’s second ever international fixture.  There were echoes of Berlin for their 38-year-old player-coach as an improbable opening victory – 5-3 against Mexico – preceded a heavy quarter-final defeat to the tournament winners, the Liedholm, Nordahl and Gren inspiring triumvirate inspiring Sweden to a 12-0 win at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park.

However, August 1948 was a momentous month on both sides of the border. The occupying Soviet military established a Civil Authority in Pyeongyang, headed by an ex-guerrilla fighter who’d taken the name of Kim Il-sung. At dawn on the 25th of June 1950, Kim Yong-sik’s countrymen crossed the 38th parallel behind an artillery barrage and the two Koreas were in open conflict.  Once again, football on the peninsula was disrupted by the outbreak of war.  As the only organised teams now belonged to the military, Kim played and coached for the Army Reserve Academy, the Korean Air Force and the 227th Army Transportation Unit until his retirement in 1952.  On October 25th, with Chinese, American and Korean troops in the midst of the forty-two-day Battle of Triangle Hill, the South Korean national team played a Korea University side in a friendly arranged to mark Kim’s final appearance. This was far from the end of his career in football, however.  In 1951, he had qualified as Korea’s first FIFA-listed referee. Just three years later, he would coach his country at their first World Cup.

In March 1954, a South Korea team coached by Kim’s one-time Japan teammate Lee Yoo-hyung, travelled to Tokyo to play a two-legged qualifier for the Switzerland World Cup.  It was the first time the two nations had met on the football pitch, and the South Korean president, Rhee Syngman, had refused to allow a Japanese team to set foot in his newly independent country.  "If we lose, we'll throw our bodies into the Korea Strait on our way back," Lee promised before his team’s departure.  Despite their home advantage, Japan were swept aside, the Koreans winning by an aggregate score of seven goals to three.  "Just the fact that our flag was flying alongside the Japanese flag must be a huge issue in Korea,” said goalkeeper Hong Duk-Young, with a certain degree of understatement.

After arriving home to a euphoric reception, Lee resigned before the tournament began. Drawn in a group with Turkey, West Germany and a Hungarian side, which had just beaten England 6-3 and 7-1, the Korean FA turned to Kim Yong-sik to replace him.  Less than a year after the armistice, with Korea still shattered by war, there would be no easy journey to Switzerland for the newly installed coach and his players.  A week before their opening game of the tournament, the travelling party left Seoul by train to Busan, where they sailed for Japan and the U.S. military plane which would take them to Zurich. Finally arriving in Tokyo, they discovered the plane could only take half the squad, the remaining players left to make their own way to Bangkok, where they finally caught a flight which arrived a single day before they took the field against the ‘Wonder Team’ of Puskas and Kocsis.  “Everything was just foreign to us.  The city, the crowds, everything,” recollected Han Chang-wha in an interview with the Joongang Ilbo. "We went to bed and the next day we woke up and realised how big a game we had in front of us. Our coach did not say much before the game. He was excited and probably as nervous as the rest of the team. At last, the call came and we walked out onto the field. My heart was pounding and I felt like it would pop out any moment."

If Kim had been excited, his emotion soon changed to despair as Puskas scored the game’s first goal after only twelve minutes.  By the time the final whistle blew, the Hungarians had added eight more, Sandor Kocsis netting three of the eleven goals he would eventually score in the tournament.   Three days later at Geneva’s Charmilles Stadium, the Koreans lost 7-0 to Turkey and departed for home.  It was to be their last World Cup appearance for thirty-two years.

While South Korean football went into decline, the North enjoyed its own ascendancy. In 1966, helped by the mass withdrawals which occurred after FIFA decided that the continents of Africa, Asia and Oceania merited just a single place in the tournament, North Korea defeated Australia 9-2 over two legs in Phnom Penh to qualify for the England World Cup, where they drew with Chile, famously beat the Italians 1-0 and were only eventually eliminated by the genius of Eusebio in front of a 52,000 crowd at Goodison Park.

South of the border, national prestige and inter-Korean relations had sunk to a dangerous low.  Stung by the North’s international propaganda success, Park Chung-hee, a former general who had seized power in a 1961 coup d'état, ordered the South Korean CIA to fund a football team of their own. The club’s name, Yangzee FC (‘or Sunlit-land Football Club) was taken from the intelligence agency’s motto: "We work in the dark to protect the sunlit land".  For Yangzee’s players, football took the place of compulsory military service, with a monthly allowance and extravagant bonuses awarded for each win.  Housed in dormitories at the KCIA headquarters in Seoul, training sessions commenced at 6am daily and players were kept under constant surveillance to ensure they remained in peak physical condition.  In 1968, Kim, now vice-president of the Korean FA, was chosen to succeed Choi Chung-min – a starting forward against the Hungarians in 1954 - as manager of a team of galácticos who by now comprised almost half the national squad.  The following year, Yangzee made the final of the Asian Club Championship in Bangkok, losing by a single goal to Maccabi Tel Aviv.  But as Park sought improved relations with the North following the capture of the USS Pueblo and the fortuitous discovery of a 31-man commando unit just 800 metres from the presidential residence, Yangzee were formally disbanded in March 1970.

Kim continued to work in football, managing a side representing Sintak Bank between 1972 and 1974. Fittingly, in 1980 he became the first professional club manager in South Korea’s history when he took charge of Hallelujah FC, a club founded, as the name suggests, by a group of evangelical Christians.

Kim Yong-sik died aged 74 in March 1985. Two decades later, in recognition of his unparalleled influence on South Korean football, he was named among the original seven inductees to the Korean Football Hall of Fame.

As well as writing for IBWM, Michael is responsible for the splendid ‘Accidental Groundhopper‘  blog. You can follow him on Twitter @DolphinHotel.