‘No balls behind me’ reads the motto on Kim Byung-Ji’s Twitter account, who has kept over 200 clean sheets over the course of 21 seasons in the K-League. In fact, the 42-year-old reached the two centuries mark in a 3-0 win over Gangwon last month, and went on to add two more shutouts ahead of Saturday’s match against Pohang Steelers. There, he is also expected to make his 589th appearance in the South Korean top flight.
For all the impressive records, the former Korea Republic international did not seem to be content rest on his laurels, when speaking to FIFA.com in an exclusive interview this week.
“Is that really a great record?” Kim asked back seriously. “Since I took the first step in 1992, I’ve always fought to survive in the competition through the good times and bad. I think I’ve done well for such a long time, and the record is all the more meaningful because it wasn’t easy and I put in such enormous effort and passion.”
Although he insists that he does not care too much about the numbers, Kim is aware of the fact that he is already a living legend and history is made every time he stands between the sticks. “I set my goal to make 500 appearances when I had reached 300, and after the 500 mark I became sort of philosophical about the records. As long as I keep on playing, the numbers will grow bigger naturally – 600, 700, or beyond, just like that.”
However, there is still a number he considers as his goal of a lifetime: “44 years and seven months,” he said. That is the milestone set by Valeri Sarychev – whose Korean name Shin Eui-Son translates as ‘the hands of God’ – as the oldest player ever in the K-League. “If I can go on like this for two more years, I’ll be able to surpass the record by the end of the 2014 season.”
Despite his excellent track record domestically, Kim was relatively not consistent while playing for Korea Republic since he won his first cap against Costa Rica in June 1995. Although he remained as undisputed No1 for the Taeguk Warriors until the build-up to the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ finals, the ponytailed custodian was at times criticised for adventurous runs outside the box.
“Around the mid-90s, there were many attack-minded goalkeepers around the world such as Campos, Higuita, and Chilavert. More recently, Rogerio Ceni of Sao Paolo even scored one hundred goals as far as I remember,” he recalled. “I regarded myself as one of the most attacking goalkeepers in Asia and that was the trend at that time.”
He conceded 73 goals in 62 matches for Korea Republic, but there is one goal he would not have liked to allow: “It was against Belgium [by Luc Nilis in a 1-1 draw during the group stage of France 1998], and otherwise we could have claimed our first win at the FIFA World Cup finals four years earlier. It was an unstoppable goal though,” he admitted. “We had lost the previous match 5-0 against the Netherlands and already lost our chance to reach the second round, so that was the only thing we were fighting for.”
That also proved to be Kim’s last chance to shine on the world stage, as the veteran had to remain on the bench to see his understudy Lee Woon-Jae become a national hero during Korea/Japan 2002.
“But I’ve never thought Lee or anyone as my rival,” Kim insisted. “I’d say that was a hype made by the media just to make interesting stories. I’ve always thought I’m the best in terms of goalkeeping abilities, and I will carry on like that.”
So the next stop for the confident and evergreen goalkeeper will be the 600 mark he is likely to reach before the end of this season.
“This won’t be a milestone at just a personal level, but I think we should celebrate it with the players, the club, the league, and Korean football as a whole,” he said. “I hope many fans will be at the stadium to witness the historic moment. That would be a great present for me.”