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Still Searching for a Multi-ethnic Korean Star: An Interview with Kang Soo-il

Six years ago, striker Kang Soo-il was on the verge of becoming the first mixed-ethnicity player to represent the Korean National team until a failed drugs test scuppered his opportunity. Returning to K League last year with Ansan Greeners after time spent playing in Japan and Thailand. K League United Columnist and Ansan Supporters Grouper reporter Mike Brandon spoke with Kang on his career and story so far and what the future holds.

To dismiss football as just a game, something neutral and inherently apolitical is to wash over any cultural constructs, reducing society to nought but a numbers game. It suggests that we do not matter, and seeks to throw a blanket over the prism of social issues refracting from wherever football casts a light. With this in mind, interviewing Kang Soo-il, a player poised to make a significant impact on the Korean national team, and Korean society as a whole when he was set for his international debut in 2015, one cannot help but see the cultural forces that push and pull on all individuals within Korean society.

Kang was set to become the first mixed-ethnicity player to represent the national team, but a failed drugs test attributed to an ingredient in moustache cream, scuppered his international career and a major milestone in Korean cultural life was not laid down. The significance of this event is captured in John Duerden’s Guardian piece shortly after the incident. So, six years on, where does the player stand now?

Multi-ethnic stars are few and far between in Korea, and many global stars of mixed heritage are generally finding their fame after growing up elsewhere, particularly in the US. Notable names to have made a mark in Korea are singers Insooni, and Hansol Choi of Seventeen. American born Lee Dong-jun came to Korea and made his mark in basketball at Daegu Orions in 2007, winning a Bronze medal with the national team in the 2007 FIBA Asia Championship. Yet with six in every 100 children born in Korea being of mixed heritage, a number which could increase given the demographic crisis and need for immigration in the future, young Koreans aspiring to be football players are in need of inspiration.

This should of course have been Kang Soo-il. However, his story still leaves many lessons for those wishing to follow in his footsteps.


On the Other Foot

Kang began his career at Incheon United, dropping out of university to earn money to support his mother. Born in Dongducheon, a strategic city north of Seoul, Kang was born to an American GI father, and a Korean mother. When Kang’s father left to the US, Kang tells, his mother chose not to follow and remain in Korea to raise him alone. The importance of being born of a foreign parent in a homogenous society cannot be understated, with less than 0.24% of Korea’s population being foreign residents at the time Kang was eight (the lowest at the time in OECD countries). “I remember fighting every day when I was a kid. I didn't like anyone looking at me, and I think I had a strong sense of victimisation” recalls Kang, “It was because Koreans have different skin color and hair. And maybe that's why my friends' parents used to tell them not to play with me.” 

Kang bows after scoring in the Line 4 Derby at Anyang,

Football however would come to play a pivotal role in Kang’s upbringing. “I learned order when I started playing soccer, and I think I was able to become a good person and an ordinary person through soccer
,” says Kang, and this laid the groundwork for his future decisions. Not only did football offer him a way out, but the trials of his youth also enshrines the importance of his mother, and the decision to go full-time with Incheon United as a twenty-year-old. 

Football offered a space where ethnicity did not dictate success, but ability. In contrast to his younger days, Kang sees no difficulties in turning pro. However, there are still some caveats that are of significant importance to the growing number of children of mixed heritage on the peninsula. Kang notes that being of mixed-ethnicity and living with just his mother, meant that there were many things he was not aware of. Despite being a cut above other players of his age, he missed his chance to follow a typical route into the professional game, remembering a missed opportunity: “After graduating from middle school, I had the opportunity to join a professional team but the application was missed.” Had he been more aware of the process and had the agency to be more proactive, Kang might have turned professional at an earlier age.

This then presents the other side of Kang’s struggle to make it in the Korean professional game: being from a single-parent background. If mixed-ethnicity is the most significant challenge to a young Korean, then being from a single-parent household is not far behind. Pathways into the professional game need not only to be opened but also made known to potential future stars. 

Kang notes the importance of mixed-ethnicity stars featuring for Korean national sides in the future. There is a pang of tragedy when he states: “From the time I first started playing soccer, no matter how good or bad I was at soccer, no matter what anyone asked, my answer was always the national team,” noting how close he came to being an icon to multi-ethnic children in the future: “If I had grown up well as a representative player and I was doing well, I think that children like me would be able to set goals by looking at me a little brighter and more joyfully.

While Kang never had the chance to walk out to represent his country as a Taeguk Warrior, he has not lost sight of the importance of someone following in his footsteps. When asked what advice he would give to young multi-ethnic children today, he states: “Only one thing. I am sure that how big and firm your dreams and goals are will guide you. I long to work harder than anyone else and be more successful, and I want to tell you to achieve it and change everything and enjoy it.


Joining Ansan

Kang’s return to the K League, after successful spells in Japan and Thailand, came at a club that has an interesting historical note regarding promoting multiculturalism and mixed-ethnicity. The city itself has been designated a ‘special multicultural city,’ with it housing the largest foreign residential area in the country. In 2010, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson supposedly prohibited Park Ji-Sung from playing in a friendly match between the national team, and the then Ansan side: Ansan Hallejujah. Instead, Park managed the national side for the match, as the national team defeated Ansan 3-1 in front of a packed Wa Stadium. The caveat of the match: to raise money for grants for children from multicultural families.

Kang’s choice to return to the K League with Ansan for the 2021 season then seemed a well-suited one. His familial loyalty is never far from his motivations stating: “No matter how much I play and do well in other countries, it was sad and heartbreaking that my parent couldn't even watch my games.” Unfortunately, Kang’s season was hindered by injury, and he only managed four starts and 12 appearances in total. He netted twice: scoring an own-goal in a 1-0 defeat to Asan in August, before being on the right end of the score sheet, and earning him at least a piece of Greeners’ legend status by scoring an eighty-second-minute equaliser in the Line 4 Derby at Anyang a week later with a cheeky lob over the Anyang keeper. The own goal might live longer in Kang’s memory however as he jokes, “My friends and co-workers teased me that it was Heading Messi.”

Kang training ahead of the 2022 K League season.

Reminiscing on his career, Kang looks over those who influenced him in his younger days. One who stands out is Hines Ward. Korean-born to a Korean mother and an African-American father who would leave his mother at two, Ward moved to Atlanta,  and eventually became a wide receiver in the NFL. He went on to win two Super Bowls and a Super Bowl MVP accolade, and now coaches at the Florida Atlantic Owls in the NCAA. He is an advocate for multi-ethnic children in Korea. And, in a way, Soo-il has blazed a trail, if a precautionary one on this path, his for the national side. At 34-years-old, Kang’s playing career is in its twilight, but when asked if he would consider management, he states: “I want to create an altar or group where children like me can dream and grow and teach soccer.

 

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