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A Tale of Two Players: From Youth to Professional

For many aspiring young players, the dream of turning professional can conclude long before they ever have the chance to cross the white line competitively. The increasingly industrialised process in Europe of transforming young talent into future stars produces a cutting room floor of shattered dreams, lists of names that will never be known to those in the stands. So when a player emerges onto the scene, their pathway is always of interest to those with similar aspirations. Korean football has several pathways, from getting a chance to play abroad, joining the K league youth system, and then there is the University league. In this article, the experiences of Kim Bo-seop and Hong Jeong-woo will be introduced.

From U to K

Kim Bo-seop made himself known in the 2022 season for Ansan Greeners, scoring twice in twenty-two appearances in his maiden K League 2 season. Kim noted that it was always something he wondered about as a youth, scoring a professional goal. His first, the opener in a 1 - 1 draw at Gimpo came from a well-worked move, with Choi Geon-joo knocking it across the box for Kim to tap-in at the back post. Despite the gravity of the goal, Kim is more reflective of the experience: “Although my first goal as a pro was not a wonder goal, I was able to score my debut goal in my first match, so it was more meaningful than any other goal.” His second would come against Jeonnam a month later, again an opener in a 3 – 2 win.

Kim’s path to becoming a K2 professional began like almost all youngsters, with a love of sports, and a dream of being a celebrated athlete. Playing for local club sides in elementary school through to middle school (up to 15 years-old), he topped league scoring charts, but as competition intensified at high school level (he would play for Seongnam’s youth side), he found his free-scoring became more limited. He was influenced by coaches Koo Sang-beom and Lee Sang-yong to switch to left-back which allowed him to cement a more regular starting position. Kim Bo-seop would then enrol at Hanyang University where he became a key player in the U-League. This pathway provides the opportunity for young athletes to obtain an education, with it being a full degree track like any other student, but they also get the chance to play to a fairly high standard, often competing in friendlies against K3 level teams and also against other potential future stars.

During this time, Kim took advantage of his versatility. “In college, I played the game by moving back and forth between the ball and number according to the situation the team needed, regardless of one position.” It is perhaps this versatility that allowed him to get the necessary playing time that would eventually see Ansan sign him up for the 2022 season. Cho Min-kook would give Kim his professional debut, but would eventually resign as Ansan manager mid-season after a poor run of results. This might have put his career in jeopardy, but Kim has high praise for his Lim Jong-heon who took over Ansan as caretaker manager in July, and got the job full-time a month later. “Coach Lim Jong-heon knows my strengths well, so even after my debut, he gave me many opportunities regardless of my position” states Kim.

In terms of the step-up from U-League level to the K2, he notes the change in the tempo of the game as being one of the biggest differences. He also notes the psychological challenge of getting that first professional contract, but then finding that it does not automatically lead to playing time. Thankfully the impact of his teammates helped him to adjust. In particular Kim Dae-yeol “always said good things and gave me sincere advice.” He is also appreciative of the guidance of Lim Jeong-heon whom “had the greatest influence on my growth because he always told me to maximize my strengths on the pitch and make up for my weaknesses.”

Kim Bo-seop celebrates scoring the opener for Ansan against Jeonnam

Praise Makes Even a Whale Dance

When considering what the most important factors are for an aspiring footballer to develop their career, Kim Bo-seop contemplates for a while.  “I think there are so many important things while playing football. There are so many things such as speed, physical strength, mentality, etc. I hope young people are full of passion for soccer, and I hope that passion does not disappear. Professional players also prepare and work hard every week to win a game, but in fact, if they do not have passion for soccer, the effort and time to prepare will pass in vain.” He goes on to state that encouragement is essential in bringing on young players. “The encouragement and support of my fans and family gave me the most strength. I think the encouragement and praise of parents and leaders are also very helpful for growth.” He notes the Korean idiom: Praise Makes Even a Whale Dance, a consideration of the importance of those coaching and support networks for young athletes who must take on a lot of self-discipline, and are not always in a stable environment during training, playing etc. Regarding the future, Kim is bright. His first goal of gaining recognition from fans as a professional has been recognised. The next dream: Representing the national team on the world stage.

From K-High School to Spain

Hong Jeong-woo took a different path in his quest to go professional, moving to Spain rather than following the U-League path. Like Bo-seop, Hong began with similar dreams, and began playing for local clubs, beginning with ‘Conan’ located in Gunpo City. As he progressed through his school life, a coach: Jeong Won-jin began to tutor his development. This would lead to a life-changing recommendation: To play at a youth tournament in Spain. Things clicked and he was picked up by La Liga side Getafe. However, a breakthrough did not come, but an encounter with Club Atletico Pinto executive Jeong Yeon-taek would see him make a move to play for Club Atletico Pinto of the Tercera División, the fourth tier of the Spanish pyramid in 2019.  

Hong Jeong-woo player for Club Atletico Pinto

Hong also notes the importance of self-discipline and support, stating how the CA Pinto “club officials care for me very much, so I am full of desire to help the team even more.” There is a need to embrace such adventure at a young age, with him noting: “, I learn a lot of things both linguistically and culturally with my colleagues, and it is a team that I am infinitely good and proud of.”

Coincidentally, when Jeong-woo joined CA Pinto, one of their players was making his own move to Korea. Ismael Jorge joined Ansan for the 2020 season, before being loaned out to Gimpo. Holding the shirt name ‘Valeria’ while playing for the Greeners, he would notch up a goal in the FA Cup, and Jeong-woo held him in high record for the period that their paths crossed in Spain. Jorge would return to Spain with Villaverde San Andrés, playing in the regional tournament level in the 6th tier of Spanish football. Hong would also go this path when signing for AD Unión Adarve in 2021.
Ismael Jorge in action for Ansan against Gyeongnam in 2020
Despite the different path to Kim Bo-seop, Hong Jeong-woo still has some important words for young Korean players aspiring to go further in the game. “Self-management is really important in football,” he states, noting how he had never had an injury in over ten years of football. “ I never took a break from exercise, and my body was so fine that I never received rehabilitation treatment. Because of this, the mindset of "I'm not hurt" was so strong that I neglected self-management, and in the preseason in August 2019, I suffered an injury called a meniscal tear in the knee.” Injuries are one of the factors that can be most cruel for young athletes, as promising careers can end in ways that the individual can feel powerless to prevent. Hong notes that this realisation made him refocus on his self-discipline and he was able to return to the field after six months out.

No Straight Path

It is a footballing cliché that predictions of future stars rarely come to fruition. The increasing money placed into academy development seeks to guarantee a steady procession of talent for clubs, yet when it comes to converting youthful dreams to professional reality, there is no set-path. There is one final parallel between the two players though, and one that has been seen as increasingly important in youth development: that of education. Kim Bo-seop went to university before turning professional, and Hong Jeong-woo returned from Spain to ensure that he received and passed his high school certification. The risk that young players take in trying to go professional can leave them with few options as they enter adulthood, and a thought perhaps should be made to all those aspiring young players who never made it, but allowed those who step onto the pitch on a weekend to make football happen.

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