Kim Shinwook ducks through doorways at the Toyota Stadium to keep from bumping his head. At 1.96 m (6ft 5in), the Ulsan Hyundai target-man draws attention here in Japan, a country, generally speaking, of compact body types and subtlety.
The Korean No9 towers over team-mates and opponents, policemen and stadium officials after the Asian champions’ demoralising loss to Monterrey of Mexico. It’s no wonder fans of Ulsan have taken to calling him, affectionately, ‘Our Giant.’
“I never played basketball, I swear,” he told FIFA.com with the bored half-smile of a player who came up short in a big game. “I know I’m tall, but this doesn’t mean I am a basketball player.” There were suggestions among members the Japanese media that Kim Shinwook not only started out playing basketball competitively, but that he could even dunk. It’s just not true, insisted the forward, Ulsan’s top-scorer in the K-League and the AFC Champions League this season.
Centre-back to centre-forward
“My only love is football,” he said, moving politely out of the way to allow smaller folk to pass and board the team buses. “I am a true footballer in my heart.”
Some purists might dispute that claim, but Kim Shinwook is a dangerous player on his day. There is no doubt of that. Strong and brave, he launches into aerial duels with a courage bordering on the reckless, his big body hurtling through the air, where skulls and elbows fly. He commits many fouls, and he is often fouled. It’s a punishing, lonely job to be a striker for a defensive team.
The Korean, now 24, began his career in football as a centre-back, a suitable spot on the field for a man with such prodigious physical assets, before he was converted to a centre-forward. And in an Ulsan team that stresses defensive assurance above all else, Kim Shinwook plays most of his games as a lone target-man, climbing high above his markers to bring the ball down and hold it up for the likes of Lee Keunho, recently crowned Asian player of the year and one of the only creative sparks in the team.
“It didn’t work today,” he said, shaking his head apologetically, after their FIFA Club World Cup opener, a 3-1 loss to Mexico’s Monterrey. “I tried my best up there, but I was all alone and the Mexican defenders were teaming up on me and making it very difficult to bring the ball down or to get free in any way. I was alone and they were many.
I did my best today, but it didn’t work today. I played the game I always play, but I couldn’t find the keys to the door.
“They [Monterrey] were better than we expected,” added the striker, who admitted that Ulsan’s tactics of keeping it tight at the back and breaking with speed, failed miserably. The only goal they managed came with the score already 3-0, thanks to a howler by Monterrey keeper Jonathan Orozco. “We wanted to press them high, but it didn’t work and they ended up pressing us.
“We created very few chances,” Kim Shinwook added, looking for an escape from the bright lights and waiting cameraman. He broke free just once against the Mexican champions, but his sliding effort went wide of the post, summing up a frustrating night.
“I did my best today, but it didn’t work today. I played the game I always play, but I couldn’t find the keys to the door,” added the big man, who has played four times for Korea Republic in the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign, but is in no way considered a regular for the Taeguk Warriors, probably due to his specialised skill-set as a big man.
Up next for Ulsan and their Giant, Kim Shinwook, is a date with Japan’s Hiroshima Sanfrecce in Korea-Japan East Asian derby for fifth place here at the FIFA Club World Cup. Hiroshima winger Mihael Mikic pulled no punches in describing the upcoming game, on Wednesday in Toyota. “There’s a big rivalry here, and we want to show that Japan’s football is better than Korea’s,” said the former Croatia youth international. “We play good football and they [Ulsan] play physical, even a little dirty.”
Kim Shinwook is eager for a better showing, the next chance to use his big body to better effect. “We will change our tactics for this next game, and I will do my best to score,” he said, before bowing ever so slightly and making his way through the throngs of reporters eager to ask him questions. “We will push forward, we will give everything we can to score.”