Korea Republic midfielder Nam Tae-Hee knows a thing or two about long-distance travel, having left his family behind at the age of 16 in a bid to make his name on foreign shores.
His global odyssey began in 2007, while still a high school student in Seoul, with England his first port of call. In making the move and joining Reading’s youth academy a year later, the intrepid Nam took a step that most youngsters would have thought twice about, but which came naturally to him, as he explained to FIFA.com: “Moving to Europe at the age of 16 wasn’t a problem for me because I’ve been living far away from my family at school since I was ten.”
As it turned out, however, his future did not lie in England, and in 2009 he crossed the channel to sign his first professional contract with Valenciennes, though it took him a while to settle and get to grips with French.
“Reading offered me a contract but I had to leave England for administrative reasons,” he explained. “The best solution was to head to France and Valenciennes, where I did sign terms. The club gave me the chance to play in Ligue 1 and I was delighted to play for the first team and to put pen to paper on my first professional contract.”
Nam began what would be a three-season stay in France with a debut outing against Nancy in August 2009, becoming, at the age of 18, the youngest Asian player ever to grace Ligue 1.
Reflecting on the experience, he said: “I was young and I wanted to develop my game. I learned a lot in France, playing alongside some really good players and under a very experienced coach.”
Dubbed “The Korean Messi” at Valenciennes, Nam took off for Qatar in 2012, signing on the dotted line for Lekhwiya. It did not take long for him to make his mark in the Emirates, forming part of a side that last season finished runners-up in the Qatar Stars League and won the Crown Prince Cup, the prelude to their league championship win this year.
“I wasn’t getting much football at Valenciennes, which is why I decided to leave for Qatar, so I could get more first-team action,” the Korean Republic international said. “I’ve had three seasons there now and I think the time has come for me to seek a fresh challenge back in Europe.”
The 22-year-old found himself back in England a couple of years ago, as part of the Korea Republic side that took part in the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012, the Asian side advancing beyond the group phase for only the second time in their history. They would eventually go to break new ground by claiming the bronze, the country’s first Olympic football medal.
Recalling their historic achievement, Nam said: “The Olympic tournament was tough but we put in some good performances. We learned to play together and to compete against some teams with big reputations.”
He added: “It was fantastic for my team-mates and I to win what was a well-deserved bronze medal. I still remember the match against Great Britain, which we won on penalties. That tournament will always be etched on my mind.”
A childhood dream
In contrast to the Olympic side, however, Korea Republic’s senior team were made to sweat before finally securing their ticket to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, the Taeguk Warriors eventually taking second place in their final qualification group on goal difference from Uzbekistan.
Explaining their qualifying struggles, Nam said he believed improving standards in Asia have made World Cup preliminaries much harder than they used to be: “Luck was on our side in quite a few games. Even so, I think we deserved to go through because we’ve put in some good displays of late. I just hope we can keep it going.”
Korea Republic have a tough challenge awaiting them at the world finals, with Belgium, Russia and Algeria providing their opposition in Group H.
“It’s a difficult section and it’s going to be hard for us, for sure,” Nam said, a team-mate of Algeria’s Madjid Bougherra at Lekhwiya, offering his view on the task ahead. “If we show who we really are, then we can qualify. The match against Russia will be the most important one because it’s our first. Then we’ll just have to see how we go against Belgium and Algeria, who are both good sides.”
Flashing a smile, he then said: “I talk to Madjid every day about the World Cup, and our coach, Eric Gerets, is Belgian. He talks to us about the competition too and each team’s chances.”
Though upbeat about the national team’s prospects, Nam was unsure as to his chances of making it to Brazil 2014: “I watched Korea/Japan 2002 when I was a kid and I’ve been dreaming of playing in the World Cup ever since. I hope to be able to take part in what is a global event one day.”
That day could well be a lot closer than the globe-trotting Nam thinks, and if the opportunity does come his way, then the fearless midfielder will look to seize it.