In terms of speed, few could surpass him on the pitch. Korea Republic's Seo Jung-Won is remembered as the fastest forward of all time in his country. A typical winger, Seo would sprint down on the right flank to send over dangerous crosses or break through the opposing defence and finish it off almost nonchalantly.
For all his flamboyant moves, fans will always remember him scoring a last-gasp equaliser against Spain at the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™, celebrating his "goal of lifetime" with his fists up in the air. The second-half substitute crept into the right side of the area to collect a neat pass from Hong Myung-Bo, before firing the ball past a helpless Santiago Canizares.
In a playing career spanning 15 years, Seo travelled a lot: moving from Anyang to Strasbourg, joining Anyang's cross-town rivals Suwon on his return to Korea Republic, then relighting his fire in the Austrian Bundesliga with Red Bull Salzburg and SV Ried. After hanging up his boots last year, the 37-year-old returned to his homeland to set up a youth football academy of his own. FIFA.com caught up with the man who, unlike his pace, is "still living the dream, slow and steady."
"When it comes to dreaming, I think the bigger the better," says Seo who only began seriously playing football at the age of 16. "It's true that I was a bit later than my peers because the local schools I attended had no football teams there [in his native Gwangju]. But after watching Cha Bum-Kun playing in the German Bundesliga on television, I made up my mind to become a footballer, and to play in Europe some day."
So it became something of a ritual for the ambitious teenager to go to football games on a weekly basis. "The only way to see live football was to travel to Hyochang Stadium in Seoul," Seo explains. "It took five hours and three buses to get there but I never missed a match even if I had to travel by myself. I never felt alone though, because I could watch football."
After coming into the prominence in a high school tournament and through Korea Republic's youth ranks, Seo became an indispensable member of the U-23 team for the Olympic Football Tournament in 1992. Despite his goal against Sweden the Koreans made an early exit from Barcelona, but he was reportedly offered a contract from several European giants including FC Barcelona. However, he had no choice but to return home to undergo a two-year mandatory military service.
And then came 1994. After a disastrous but ultimately fortunate preliminary campaign, the Taeguk Warriors had been understandably regarded as underdogs ahead of their first match against Spain at the USA 94. In what turned out to be one of the most thrilling comebacks by the South Koreans, they fought back from two goals behind to score twice in the final five minutes.
"Just to play in the World Cup is every footballer's dream. And to score such a goal in the World Cup, well, you can't imagine what it feels like," recalls Seo. "It was a moment of pure ecstasy."
Although his second FIFA World Cup experience in 1998 was no longer than the first one with Korea Republic eliminated again in the group stage, Seo could prolong his stay in France by joining RC Strasbourg. "It was a dream come true, to play in the French league and to score on my debut," says Seo. But his dream was to be short-lived, as his chances became limited following a managerial change at the club.
Few people raised their eyebrows when Seo decided to ‘go west' again at the age of 34, after six successful seasons with Suwon. "I could have retired from playing and begun my coaching lessons earlier, but I thought I could do both at the same time," explains Seo, who was voted the Player of the Year in the Austrian Bundesliga in 2006 while taking courses for a UEFA coaching licence.
Therefore it was a natural move for him to open a football academy for children in Seoul this spring, upon returning to his homeland. "I was surprised to see how young players were forced to achieve something on the pitch," says Seo. "They are trained to win games but there's no room for flexibility or creativity. They need to learn how to enjoy the game and focus on the game itself regardless of results."
"I hope I can build a team of my own some day. These kind of academies can connect various levels of schools here - elementary, middle, and high schools and universities - to provide consistent lessons for youn hopefuls," he said. "I know it would take some time but if we could find a Ronaldinho or Messi among them, that would be just another dream come true for me."
Facts and figures
Clubs: Anyang LG Cheetahs (1992-97), RC Strasbourg (1997-98), Suwon Samsung Bluewings (1999-2004), Red Bull Salzburg (2005), SV Ried (2005-07).
National Team: 86 caps (16 goals)
Honours: 2 Asian Club Championship titles (Suwon 2000, 2001), K-League winner (Suwon 2004), appearances at two FIFA World Cup finals (1994, 1998).
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