Seventh heaven for Santa Hong

Hong Myung-Bo’s glittering career in Korea Republic’s red jersey drew to a close against Brazil in Seoul on 20 November 2002. Having led his country to the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup™ on home soil five months earlier, the ‘Eternal Libero’ seemed to have nothing left to achieve following a 135-match career with the Taeguk Warriors.

“I’m honoured to retire from this stage after 13 years, although I cannot live with the Taeguk crest and number 20 on my shirt anymore,” said a tearful Hong following the match. “I’m such a blessed man with so many good things from Korean football and I want to give something in return from now on.”

Seven years on the 40-year-old has established a scholarship foundation and football academy for children, and more recently, made a successful coaching debut at the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt. But for all these achievements, the former South Korean captain seems to have a lingering attachment to the colour of red.

At this time of year, on every Christmas Day since 2003, Hong’s foundation has organised a charity football match under the slogan ‘Share the Dream’ to help children suffering from cancer or poverty. Hong will again return to the Seoul World Cup Stadium, where he once said goodbye to the fans, and take to the pitch along with two all-star teams in Santa Claus outfits.

This [charity game] must go on, as long as football can give happiness and hope to the world
Hong Myung-Bo.

“I’m proud that this match has become one of the biggest sporting events in the winter thanks to my former colleagues taking part over the years,” Hong said at the pre-match press conference. “This [charity game] must go on, as long as football can give happiness and hope to the world. I hope the children can keep their dream, love and hope despite hardship and grow up as the future of Korea.”

While the Christmas match has given hope to those children, no fewer than 153 young footballers have benefited from Hong’s scholarship so far. The beneficiaries include 2008 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup standout Ji So-Yun, MVP and top scorer of this year’s AFC U-16 Women’s Championship Yeo Min-Ji, 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup South Korea team members Moon Ki-Han and Kim Min-Woo as well as Kim Jin-Young who stood in goal for Korea Republic at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Nigeria.

A match of Love and Hope
This year’s match will, as always, be between Love Team and Hope Team. Having played for the Love side in the previous six editions, Hong will make another debut as a coach for the Hope side, with his former team-mate Hwang Sun-Hong set to lead the Love side from the bench.

Hong has all the players from Egypt 2009 at his disposal, including captain Koo Ja-Cheol and forward Cho Young-Cheol, as well as his assistant coaches Seo Jung-Won and Kim Tae-Young. His counterpart Hwang will choose from the 20 all-stars of the K-League and the J.League as voted by the players of the Hope side, but one star player is almost certain to start on Friday.

“I want to thank all those who celebrate this meaningful event every year, so we can be together with our neighbours on and off the pitch,” said the K-League’s leading marksman Lee Dong-Gook, who was voted as this year’s MVP of the league at the annual awards on Tuesday. “I’ll be prepared to play good football.”

In fact, the 2009 version of the event is more than a football match says Hong. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to set a new world record with the largest group of carol singers, which we failed to achieve last year,” stated Hong while dressed in a Santa outfit. “We’d like to see some 30,000 fans come and sing at the stadium this time around. I think it’s worth trying again to set the world record, which will eventually benefit our young hopefuls who dream of a brighter future.”

But regardless of any records or the result of the match between Love and Hope, this winter is getting a little bit warmer for those who believe their dreams will come true.