It is not just suspected but taken for granted that a youngster from Korea Republic will use the FIFA World Cup™ to catapult himself into the global spotlight. Kim Joo-Sung did so at Mexico 1986 and was succeeded at the ensuing five editions by Hong Myung-Bo, Lee Woon-Jae, Lee Dong-Gook, Park Ji-Sung and Park Chu-Young respectively. Midfielder Ki Sung-Yueng, to those who have witnessed his sharp reading of the game, passing and free-kick expertise, is poised to continue that trend at South Africa 2010.
It was something that was unforeseen ten years ago, when Ki was a run-of-the-mill apprentice in Korea Republic’s U-12 set-up. However, aged 13, he decided to learn his trade in Australia. There, the Gwangju native, who turns 21 on Sunday, spent his time improving his distribution and, especially, refining a set-piece technique that would help him become one of the eminent dead-ball specialists in Asia.
“I’ve have been confident in my free-kicks since I was a boy,” said Ki. “And all the time I followed the English Premiership, which was huge in Australia, I could learn from those players. I thought I should play like them, especially Steven Gerrard of Liverpool, in order to succeed. And I spent quite a lot of time practicing free-kicks.”
Ki, who is nicknamed ‘Kirrard’ after his idol, demonstrated this aptitude during Korea Republic’s successful qualifying campaign for South Africa 2010. In a crucial encounter with Iran last February, he stunned the Azadi with an audacious free-kick from 40 metres that Seyed Rahmati barely managed to parry away, before setting up Park Ji-Sung’s equaliser in a 1-1 draw with another set-piece in the closing minutes. Ki had already risen to prominence in September 2008, when he scored his first international goal: a late equaliser in a 1-1 draw with Korea DPR that denied Ri Myong-Guk a seventh successive clean sheet.
One down, one to go
It was not all plain sailing for Ki upon his return from Down Under, though. Although began his professional career at FC Seoul in 2006, the promising central midfielder initially struggled to break into the first team and, at international level, was forced to operate as a centre-back during the AFC U-19 Championship and the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007.
“I really wanted to play in midfield but there were so many good players back then, and I was not even sure if I could make the trip to Canada,” Ki recalled. “But I gained confidence after I was called up to the first team at Seoul, and I took more chances after that. All in all, I think it was a good experience. When can I ever play in defence again?”
Having taken part in the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008, Ki became an integral figure for both his club and the senior Taeguk Warriors. “After the Olympics, I came to realise that my position is somewhere in between: I’m neither a defensive midfielder who fights for the ball with tough tackles, nor an attacking midfielder who plays behind strikers,” he said. “Probably my style is more like those of Andrea Pirlo or Xabi Alsonso, but I’m trying to raise the offensive side of my game.”
Ki recently realised his dream of playing in Europe by debuting for Celtic in the Scottish Premier League, but there is one more ambition he is eager to fulfil this year. “If I could make it to the World Cup, it would be another chance for me to improve,” he said.
“I could play against the best players in the world, who are stronger than any other opponents I’ve ever faced. I hope we can reach the last 16 this time, and personally I want to score a goal. Then I would want nothing else.”
Ki made his international debut in a friendly against Jordan on 5 September 2008, and just five days scored his first goal for Korea Republic in a 1-1 draw with Korea DPR in South Africa 2010 qualifying.
Curiously, Ki’s official presentation as a Celtic player in December 2009 did not take place in Glasgow, Scotland, but in Seoul in his native Korea Republic.
Ki wore the No21 jersey for FC Seoul, chosen because Zinedine Zidane sported the same number for Juventus. The youngster's hero, though, is Steven Gerrard of Liverpool, and his fans call him ‘Kirrard’ due to their similarities in playing style.