Focus on Asia

Tragedy strikes South Korean football

May 11, 2011
By John Duerden
(Archive)

Sunday's K-League game between FC Seoul and Sangju Sangmu was one of the best of an already entertaining season. It had everything you want to see on a football pitch - seven goals, three equalisers, two red cards and one late winner to cap off an afternoon of great football bathed in warm May sunshine. As Hyun Young-min celebrated his 87th minute free-kick however, there were things happening on football pitches elsewhere in South Korea that nobody wants to see.

Shin Yong-Rok Jeju United
Soccernet / K-LeagueJeju United striker Shin Yong-Rok remains in a coma after collapsing on the pitch on Sunday

In Daejeon, Incheon United came back to win 2-1 only for the players to burst into tears at the final whistle, overpowered by emotion following the death of their goalkeeper Yoon Ki-Won two days previously. Down on Jeju island, striker Shin Yong-Rok was receiving cardiopulmonary resuscitation on the pitch surrounded by disbelieving and distraught team-mates and opponents.

At the time of writing, 48 hours later, Shin, who was found to have suffered heart failure that interrupted the flow of blood to his brain, is still in a coma. With seven minutes remaining in Sunday's match against Daegu FC, the player suddenly fell on the floor with the reaction of all around him an immediate sign of the severity of the situation.

According to staff at Jeju Halla Hospital, he probably would have died had he not received such quick and effective treatment from medical staff as he lay on the grass at Jeju World Cup Stadium."It was a miracle that he reached the hospital in seven minutes," said hospital spokesman Kim Sang-Hoon."In 95% of these cases, there is not much we can do, but Shin is very lucky as he received treatment immediately." The 24 year-old is not out of the woods but as he is breathing by himself and as is known as one of the spikiest of strikers you could ever see - he is nicknamed 'Yongrok-ba' after a certain Ivory Coast and Chelsea star after all- there is hope.

Jeju United are supposed to be preparing for a vital Asian Champions League match against Melbourne Victory on Wednesday but few connected with the club care. Coach Park Kyung-Hoon should be preparing his players to get the win necessary to progress to the second round but is spending much of his time at the hospital. Instead of talking to reporters about his plans to tackle the Australians, Park is attending press conferences that are conducted by men in white coats, behind which are not the names of sponsors connected with the continental competition but blown-up scans of Shin's brain.

Shin has made three appearances for the national team and was hopeful of making more and going to the 2014 World Cup. He was one of the stars of the 2008 season when his goals helped Suwon Bluewings win the K-League title and, at the time, he was one of the most promising forwards in Asia. He spent two seasons in Turkey with Bursaspor before returning to Suwon and then moving down to the island of Jeju. He had yet to recapture the form of three years ago, but there were hopes that a settled period at the club would help him become one of the best in Korea once again. Now the hopes are of a different nature, all just want him to get well.

Korean football was already in shock. On Friday evening, news broke that Incheon United goalkeeper Yoon had been found dead in his car in southern Seoul. Just 23, Yoon had only become a professional player the previous year, joining Incheon as the fifth draft pick ahead of that season. The goalkeeper played just the one game in his debut campaign but started the 2011 season as the main man. After seven games, he lost his starting place in April after a 2-2 draw with Pohang. Police are treating his death as suicide.

The issue is a growing, though obviously sensitive, one in this prosperous and fast-moving nation. Korea enjoys overtaking neighbours Japan in many fields but there was no celebration in 2007, when the Land of the Morning Calm moved above the Rising Sun to have the highest rate of suicide among the world's most developed nations [those in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development]. In recent years, agrowing list of high-profile figures have taken their own lives - most notably former president Roh Moo-Hyun in 2009.

There are concerns that such celebrity deaths can influence others; after famous actress Choi Jin-Sil killed herself in 2008, there was a 70% increase in people taking their own lives in the following month. But it is not confined to the rich and famous. One of the nation's leading universities, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, has been hit in 2011 by five deaths. Some, such as Kwak Kum-Joo, a psychologist at Seoul National University, put it down to the ultra-competitive nature of Korean society.

"It starts from a young age," said Kwak."Kids study incredibly long hours to get into the best schools that lead to the best universities that lead to the best jobs. We tend to consider everyone other than the first-place winner as losers. As the society gets modernised, human relations [are] cut. People don't have friends to share their hardships and listen to their problems."

Yoon Ki-Won tributes Incheon united
SoccernetTributes have poured in for Incehon goalkeeper Yoon Ki-Won, who died in a suspected sucide last week

Others point to the lack of focus on mental health issues compared to those of a physical nature. "This is the dark aspect of our rapid development," said Ha Kyu-Seob, a psychiatrist at Seoul National University College of Medicine. "We are unwilling to seek help for depression. We are very afraid of being seen as crazy." Shin had access to top-class medical treatment as soon as he collapsed on Sunday but options for those suffering from less visible problems are more limited. Sports psychology has still not taken off in most parts of Asia.

Whatever the reasons, those left behind are left shocked and bewildered at Yoon's death."Whenever I thought of Yoon, the tears wouldn't stop coming," said goalkeeper Song Yoo-Keol after the match at Daejeon. Team-mates hugged and comforted each other, while Incheon's travelling fans performed none of their usual singing and bouncing routines, choosing instead to just clap politely.

Head coach Huh Jung-Moo also had little interest in the result."Finding Yoon was the biggest plus of last season," said South Korea's 2010 World Cup boss, visibly upset. "We are all in shock. He was a sincere individual, a good player and a sincere team-mate. I remember saying to him in training two weeks ago that goalkeepers need to endure whatever comes their way. Whatever happens they must not move back and try to stop any ball, no matter how hard it is."

It has been a hard week for Korean football, but that is nothing compared to what the families are going through. There is not much more that can be said except that if the outpouring of grief and support from the beautiful game is anything to go by, Yoon will rest in peace and Shin will recover quickly.