Ki Sung-yueng and Racism in the British Game

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by a young talented Korea photographer – Daewoong Kim, studying here in London. Daewoong, being interested in photography and football wanted to discuss my experiences interviewing Korean footballers and working within BBC Sport. Needless to say this is the first (and probably last!) time I have been interviewed, and I was probably more nervous about the ordeal than Deawoong, who also boasted a very fine collection of photographs of football fans.

Ki Sung-yueng
Celtic's Ki Sung-yueng

One of the questions that was hot on Deawoong’s mind was an explanation of a very unfortunate event and prevalent characteristic in the British game. Ki Sung-yueng was subject to racist chanting and abuse from fans of St Johnstone football club when Celtic travelled there in late October. Allegedly the fans had made monkey and dog noises at Ki, some of which were spotted and reported by team Korean team mate Cha Du-ri. Daewoong wanted to know why one of his heroes was victim to such sickening abuse from a people which Ki had done nothing to except be a professional footballer and play against their team. How on earth was I going to answer this one? As someone who doesn’t see himself as completely British or completely Asian and a consumer of the game for many many years, I think I was in a decent position to answer this one. This story however goes back far beyond my own experiences.

I explained to Daewoong, the British game hasn’t always been as glamorous and exciting as it is now. It is also very important that we get one thing clear. Although this incident happened in Scotland, there is a historical timeline of events that both the Scottish and English game share therefore the characteristics of these incidents are not completely separate. In the 1970s and 80s the British game was dirty, and something which people didn’t want to be associated with. Teams like Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Leeds United were powerhouse teams in both the domestic game and in Europe. However there was also a nasty side to the game and this was in the stands. Hooliganism was common and something which teams like Leeds United carried out onto the pitch. As time passed more and more black players came into the game and, with that, incidents like bananas being thrown at players as they warmed up. These incidents were commonplace and even continued after Viv Anderson became the first black player to play a full match for England. As time passed, more money came into the game as the likes of Sky Sports and private businesses showed interest in football. With that, ticket prices went up and a more diverse Britain meant more diverse crowds and more importantly, players. Nowadays there is little done with British interests at heart in the English and Scottish Premier Leagues and indeed the international interest in the leagues is given far greater weight than home interest. The abysmal decline of the English and Scottish national teams is evidence for this. However it seems the bad times may be creeping up on us again with the decline of the economy, rise of social unrest and slow return of hooligan incidents in the British game.

Park Ji-sung
Park Ji-sung: at least he's not from Liverpool...

So where do Asians stand in all of this? The Asians who have played in Britain, from Shunsuka Nakamura to Park Ji-sung, have all seen racism in some way or another no matter how subtle this may be. Take the Manchester United fans’ chant for Park Ji-sung into account:

Park, Park wherever you may be,
You eat dogs in your own country.
It would be worse, you could be Scouse,
Eating rats in a council house.1

Korean players generally have never received a great deal of credit in the English media. Whenever a club sign an Asian player the reaction is always that it is a cynical move to try and sell shirts. The thought that an Asian could actually be good at playing football has never crossed anyone’s mind. Take into account Park Ji-sung’s performance against Wolves this season. Manchester United were abysmal for entire match but thanks to two goals by Park (the second of which was magical dying minute solo effort) went on to win the match 2-1. What credit did he receive for this on Match Of The Day? None. Not one mention of his name. The focus was more on how brave Wolves had been robbed of a point. There is no doubt in my mind that if both those goals were scored by Wayne Rooney the panel would have waxed lyrical about the goals being evidence that England’s favourite son was one of the top 3, if not the best, players in the world. And when Park performed brilliantly against AC Milan in the Champions League last season (suffocating World Cup winner Andrea Pirlo in midfield), Patrick Barclay, sports writer of vast experience, described Park as a ‘hopeless footballer’ and that running around was all he could do.

Lee Chung-yong
Lee Chung-yong: dynamic performances for Bolton

Lee Chung-yong also receives little credit for his dynamic performances every week for Bolton Wanderers who so far this season have ascended as high as fourth in the table. When Bolton Wanderers played Tottenham Hotspur this season all the focus was on the Spurs boy wonder winger Gareth Bale, who looked ordinary in the match. Lee however played with the confidence and skills that outshone Bale and were reminiscent of his FC Seoul days when he was a lethal attacking winger. But did he receive any credit? No. The focus instead was on why Bale had failed.

Even the incident with Ki Sung-yueng was barely mentioned in the news media. Outside of football cast your memory back to the negative portrayal of China in the run up to the Beijing Olympics and portrayal of India in the recent Commonwealth Games. The latter tournament also featured an incident in the athletes’ village of Australians trashing their rooms before leaving, in a sour reaction to India beating Australia in simultaneous cricket series. Once again the Western media chose to ignore this.

Ahn Jung-hwan
Ahn Jung-hwan: golden goal

The 2002 World Cup is perhaps the most obvious case of coverage bordering on racism. Some of the coverage might as well have just said ‘how dare these cheating Asians knock out these honest Europeans. Don’t they know how much the Italians earn?’ In a recent documentary about Italian legendary defender Paulo Maldini he described the bad memories of 2002 and the ‘injustices’ which the Italians were victims of. He also failed to mention that Ahn Jung-hwan’s golden goal was the result of his defensive error and how Ahn was sacked by his Italian club Perugia after Italy’s defeat. He also pin pointed one of the bad memories as ‘the way the crowd supported Korea’. There is something very telling in this. Asians are fierce supporters of their teams and Europeans were simply intimidated by this in 2002, but instead choose to categorise this as something bad for football.

Again this does not just extend to football, I as an Indian cricket fan see signs of this every time India come to play in England. Our chants, songs and dance moves are always met with looks of horror from the England fans and words of notice from stewards. Not to mention the confiscation of flags and horns. The Asian way of support it would appear is far to ‘uncivilised’. Getting back to the 2002 coverage, there has been much discussion about the refereeing in and the luck which the Korean team had received, which is true. However the words ‘cheat’ and ‘fix’ were thrown around during the time, and indeed if one were to seek 2002 footage on YouTube, mostly every video not made by a Korean has titles such as ‘World Cup 2002 Korea fixed matches’ or ‘Korea bad refereeing’. Once again if this had been England I’m sure we would have heard all sorts of cliché statements about teams needing a bit of luck to do well in the World Cup and how playing badly and winning is the ‘hallmark of champions’.

Ki Sung-yueng
Ki Sung-yueng: nice guy

There are more pressing issues at hand here. A human being has been abused. Ki Sung-yueng, as I have mentioned many times is one of the nicest footballers I have met and never fails to come off as a complete gentleman. He is the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind your sister bringing home. Why on earth someone would want to abuse this player in particular makes no sense and simply speaks of some deep rooted social problems amongst some of the St Johnstone fans. However it is players like Ki that are the reason I choose to support Korea and incidents like this which make it very difficult for me to even identify myself as British. Will there be any punishment handed out? Probably not, the authorities don’t take racism seriously enough. Will this damage Ki’s confidence? Most likely, Ki comes off as a gentle soul already. So what should he do about this? My suggestion: repeat history on the pitch and shove some Korean pride down the throats of the doubters.

  1. For the benefit of non British readers, Scouse = native of Liverpool. []

7 thoughts on “Ki Sung-yueng and Racism in the British Game

  1. Thanks, Philip. I can’t comment on the politics of football commentary, but I know my dad only sees footballers for their merits, not for their nationality! And his comments are often controversial, not meant to make people happy, as you can imagine. He in fact encouraged me to try to interview Parkie a couple of years ago, but the Korean player was never available, sadly. I was talking to a Korean football player the other day and heard from him that Park is no longer seen as the exciting player he was.

  2. Thanks for the comment Jennifer. Even though this article isn’t actually about Mr Patrick Barclay I’ll just clarify that I did think his comments about Park were a little problematic as they were made about someone who clearly only watches Park for Man Utd and he plays a very different role for Man Utd than he does for Korea. So in general I do think his comments were incorrect, but hey that’s football journalism! I will say however that he has always been the first to comment on how brilliant Lee Chung-yong is has always sung his praises on The Game podcast so hats off to him for that. As far as Park’s excitement factor, he has entered the twilight years of his career now and is starting to play the more defensive roles for Korea which he does for Man Utd. The mantle of most exciting Korean player has been taken taken over by Lee Chung-yong and Ki Sung-yueng.

  3. Wow. This article was amazing. It certainly addressed many of the issues that keep me from revisiting Korean football history.

    As much as I want to see clips from 2002 WC, I stop myself because I’m tired of being upset over all of the cheating, bribing accusations. I always think “Since I’m Korean, what if I’m biased and can’t see the truth?” Although it was a landmark achievement for Korea, I can’t even bring myself to enjoy it. Instead I choose to ignore the moment to forget both the pain and glory.

    I’m so glad to have found this article because it explains and supports rather than attacks and abuses. Awesome writing.

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