One of the lasting legacies of the 2002 World Cup was never going to kick in overnight, but four pioneers are beginning to make an impression in France.
Back in 2002, when millions of proud Koreans gathered in the streets to cheer their team to the World Cup semi-finals, there was no doubt that the global game had a vibrant new market and it didn’t take long for European clubs to take note and tap into this resource. Before the tournament began only two players from the 23-man Korean Republic squad played club football in Europe. After the tournament, that number had risen to ten.
Korean football has been on the rise for many years and more and more players are making the move west. France is the latest country to capitalise on the wealth of talent emerging from the region. From the current South Korean national team there are eleven players plying their trade in the European Leagues; four of them play their football in either Ligue 1 or Ligue 2. It would seem even the French themselves are not aware of their ever growing relationship with a friend from the East.
Father Philippe Maubant was the first French missionary to travel to Korea back in the 19th century. Arriving in 1836, Maubant began facilitating and defending the spread of Catholic Christianity to the region. Not all the messengers were as well received; in 1866 the French Military had to step in to rescue Catholic missionaries from persecution under the Joseon Dynasty.
During the raids the French looted over 200 books from the Korean Peninsula's royal dynasty. 146 years on, current President Nicolas Sarkozy has agreed to return 247 books on a continuing 5-year loan deal. The books will be housed in the National Museum of Korea in Seoul.
A community of 3,310 existed in 1988, but when records were updated in 2000, there were just over 14,000 Koreans living in France, the third highest number of ex pats in Europe. The first migrants arrived in France around 1919 when 35 workers were granted work permits by the French government, having arrived in the country to work as manual labourers. These pioneers began building the excellent relationship the two countries now share.
The vast majority of Koreans can be found in the suburbs of Paris, 80% of migrants call the French capital home. The popularity of the Korean television show “Lovers in Paris” has also led to an increase in the number of Korean tourists visiting the French capital.
The first player to fly the flag for his country in Ligue 1 was Monaco’s impressive forward Park Chu-Young. At the age of 22, the striker made the move west from FC Seoul in August 2008, scoring his first goal against Lorient in September of the same year. Offering a combination of intelligent running and great vision, complimented with an excellent aerial ability and deadly set-piece skills, Park has brought an intensity and energy that Monaco supporters really appreciate. His three seasons in France have been a great success, leading to increased speculation of a move away from the principality.
With Park showing that Korean players can achieve success abroad, it is no surprise that more of his compatriots have headed to France. Lee Yong-Jae has been on the books of Nantes since 2009, still only 19, he has really come on in leaps and bounds this season. Signed from Watford in 2009, Lee has been slowly nurtured at Les Canaris and this season the Nantes fans have finally been able to see what he has to offer. Two goals in 24 appearances for his club it is not the best return, but the forward has shown plenty of promise and the home fans at La Beaujoire-Louis Fonteneauare are hoping for great things from the youngster. Nantes have struggled to find their way out of Ligue 2 since relegation in 2009 and another season in the second tier lies ahead, but it could be the springboard Lee needs to take his career to the next level.
Another 19-year old making waves in France is Valenciennes midfielder Nam Tae-hee. Following a year in Reading FC’s reserve side Valenciennes swooped and brought the then 17-year old midfielder to France. When he made his debut against Nancy in 2009, Nam became the youngest Korean footballer to play in a professional league in Europe.
Valenciennes fans have labelled Nam the “Korean Messi” and it’s easy to see why. Very good on the ball with great speed, he is also very versatile with the ability to play right across midfield. After moving up through the national team ranks, Nam made his debut for the national side in a friendly against Turkey in February and it would be very surprising if he wasn’t a major part of the Korean Republic’s plans come the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Completing this impressive quartet is Auxerre striker Jung Jo-Gook. Signed in 2011 after his 12 goals led FC Seoul to the K-League title, the 27 year old is married to Korean actress Sung-Eun. At the start of the month it was Jung that flourished in the spotlight, making a massive dent in Marseille’s title chances. Latching onto a high ball over the top of the Marseille defence he stayed strong to poke the ball under Steve Mandanda. His first Ligue 1 goal at the Stade Velodrome brought Auxerre level and won his team a vital away point. Although Jung has only played ten games in Ligue 1 the consensus is very good. He has found his feet after a slow start and it seems manager Jean Fernandez has full faith in his January signing. With a full pre-season to come in the summer, Jung could become an important member of the AJA team. Having other Korean nationals in the league seems to be helping the players quickly settle and Jung recently told Ligue1.com that having Park Chu-Young and Nam Tae-Hee in the league was the main motivating factor in choosing Auxerre over other European clubs.
It’s not just on the playing field that relations between the two countries are blossoming; France is the seventh largest investor in the Republic of Korea. The relationships are enhanced by the presence of a French Cultural Centre in Korea and over 2000 French people living in the country. With both nations building strong sporting and economic relations it would seem that football in France could be very important to the future of the South Korean national side.
Andrew is the editor and presenter at world football website/podcast The Gib Football Show and you can find him on Twitter here, also for more of Andrew's excellent French football coverage he is also one of the people behind the French Football Weekly site & pod found here