Heart and Seol
In today's football world, negativity abounds and the positive is often hidden. Adverse stories seem to make good copy and the sports pages are filled with reports of scuffles, verbal clashes, roasting incidents and bung allegations.
Against this background pampered players complain about their lack of pay and minutes on the pitch, and that's why it is so refreshing to meet Reading's Seol Ki-Hyeon.
'What I would like people to know most is that I try to muster up my confidence and always give my all in each and every game,' the South Korean refreshingly reveals.
Seol has become an instant hit in the Premiership and one of Reading's key weapons in their battle for survival. He was instrumental in his club's surprisingly good start to the season, with crucial goals and assists.
The thoughtful six-foot forward brings a surprising amount of experience to the Berkshire club. Prior to joining he enjoyed a two-year stint with Wolves and was a star for Antwerp and Anderlecht, where he scored a debut hat-trick during the Belgian Super Cup, and even played in the Champions League.
During my 30 minute interview with the 26-year-old, I was struck by how incredibly humble, unusually deep and thoughtful he is for an athlete. His refusal to blame others for his team's shortcomings said something about his maturity. Our conversation revealed a disciplined and determined man who is only focused on football.
Our topics of discussion ranged from the Premiership, adjusting to life in England, dealing with racism and words of encouragement for unfortunate people around the world.
• ESPNsoccernet: First of all, congratulations on Reading's success (so far), as well as your own. I know it's still too early in the season to declare anything, but Reading has surpassed everyone's expectations, and you have already been included in the Team of the Week multiple times. This must be sweet for you, considering you have been waiting for a long time to play in the Premiership.
• Seol Ki-Hyeon: Yes, it is indeed sweet. It's been a goal of mine ever since leaving Korea for Europe to play here (in the Premiership). Not only am I happy to be participating at the top level, I am even happier that all this is working out well.
• ESPNsoccernet: Were you nervous at the thought of playing in the same league as big name stars like Wayne Rooney and Andriy Shevchenko?
• Seol: As an athlete, I'm honoured more than anything, to compete with such world-class players. It's exciting. This makes me want to raise the level of my game.
• ESPNsoccernet: Besides the size of the stadiums and the players' salary, what is the main difference between the League Championship and the Premiership?
• Seol: The biggest difference is the quality of the game. And the fact that some of the world's strongest clubs are here. ...I also have been getting a lot more attention than before.
• ESPNsoccernet: You said your training with the Korean army really helped you get in shape before this season. Would you try to convince your team-mates to do a similar boot camp?
• Seol: (Laughs) not really. It's not like I can make anyone go through it. It was so exhausting. But I believe those physical hardships can help an individual become a better and more well rounded human being.
• ESPNsoccernet: You enjoy fish & chips with Guinness. Do you like any other English food?
• Seol: Well, I like to eat Korean food usually, but when I'm on the road, I don't have a choice but to eat whatever is available. I like the choices, though. There are some good chicken dishes. The English folks seem to be really into beans. They spread it on bread. At first, it seemed unusual, but now I find myself doing the same. I guess that's a little sign I'm getting used to the culture?
• ESPNsoccernet: Speaking of things you spread on bread, have you tried Marmite? They say it tastes like transmission oil.
• Seol: Mar...? I don't know what that is. (Laughs)
• ESPNsoccernet: As one of the very few Asian players in Europe, have you experienced racism from opposing team's players or fans?
• Seol: Well...yes, I do hear racist name-calling sometimes. When a player does well or scores a goal at an away game, of course, the crowd is not going to like it. But because I am one of the very few Asians in the league, it's easier to pick on me. However, as I said, I usually hear the taunts when I'm doing well, so I take that as an indicator of my performance, and don't let it get to me.
• ESPNsoccernet: Your English has improved a lot in the past few years. How about understanding Scottish or Irish accents?
• Seol: (Laughs) Accents from some northern regions seem incomprehensible to me. This English language is still a second language, so it's hard to begin with. I guess I need to study more...
• ESPNsoccernet: If you could choose another sport, which would you play? And if you weren't an athlete, what other profession would you have chosen? Any childhood dreams?
• Seol: I didn't have any special reason for choosing football. I discovered it when I was in elementary school, as that was the only sports activity they offered. And because I stood out at it right away, I stuck to it. I never really had any other dreams. Playing the game everyday was fun as a kid. You could say that football is the only thing I have ever known.
• ESPNsoccernet: You had the honour of being the Most Tackled Player in the 2002 World Cup. Did you come out with many bruises?
• Seol: I got kicked and knocked around a lot, but I didn't suffer any big injuries, so I felt OK. I think I was too happy with our good results, that the adrenaline numbed the pain.
• ESPNsoccernet: In the 2006 World Cup, Korea had the highest points (4) of all the teams that didn't make the final 16. If you were Dick Advocaat, what would you have done differently?
• Seol: Well, we just did our best what Mr. Advocaat asked us to do. I'm not the type to question managers' methods. It was a bummer that we didn't go further, but that's life. You can't have good things all the time. Wouldn't you agree that that's what makes life so much more interesting?
• ESPNsoccernet: It's no secret that the travelling and jet lag from international duties affect the club season, especially for Asian players like yourself.
• Seol: It is hard, having to fly back and forth such a long distance. But wearing your country's uniform is a privilege and an honour, so I give my best for my country. Then when I get back, I do my best to rest a lot and recover as fast as I can for my club.
• ESPNsoccernet: What makes former South Korea coach Gus Hiddink stands out as your favourite manager?
• Seol: First of all, he has such strong character. He is stubborn. He sets a goal, and doesn't let any hardships or obstacle get in the way until he reaches it. He is great at assessing the players' forte, and knows where to piece them together for the best possible outcome.
• ESPNsoccernet: You have expressed your fondness for Reading supporters and their enthusiasm. Is there a special chant or song about you?
• Seol: I do hear my name during games, but I'm not really sure what they're saying. Our supporters are fantastic! They add strength and a new dimension when we play. They sure cheer hard.
• ESPNsoccernet: There is talk about Reading possibly competing in Europe (UEFA Cup or the Champions League) next season. If that's the case, obviously Reading will need to add a number of quality players. Name three players you would like to see in a Reading uniform next year.
• Seol: Well, that remains to be seen, but our immediate goal is to stay in the league. As for new players, it'd be nice to get a team-oriented or a world-class player in the mix. But Reading is not a giant club, so it is not likely that we would sign a superstar. I'm sure Mr. Coppell and the coaching staff will do a good job with that task.
• ESPNsoccernet: What was the last good movie you saw?
• Seol: Hmm...Because of my busy schedule, I don't really get to watch that many movies. But if there's one I've enjoyed recently... (pause) ...Have you seen 'Love Actually'? You know, its set in England... That wasn't bad.
• ESPNsoccernet: All-time favourite?
• Seol: Hmm...(a few second pause)...do you know 'Billy Elliot'? I enjoyed that one. That's also set in England.
• ESPNsoccernet: Your wife studied art. Does she still find time to work on her craft?
• Seol: She's been busy taking care of the kids, but she wants to go back to continue her studies. I would like to support and help her achieve her dreams. She sacrificed a lot, going to foreign countries because of my dreams, so it's only fair.
• ESPNsoccernet: Your mother played a big part in you becoming who you are today. Is she still selling fruit these days?
• Seol: Her health hasn't been so good lately, so she doesn't do it anymore. It really hurts me that I can't be there for her.
• ESPNsoccernet: Having lost your father in a mining accident at an early age, and growing up poor, you ran away from home as a teenager because of the hard times. Are there any words of encouragement you would like to share with unfortunate children and youngsters around the world?
• Seol: Yes, I know very well the difficulties of being financially poor. It becomes more than financial. Because life was so hard, I had a negative streak as a youngster, and lashed out at my mother. I look back at that period of my life every now and then.
If people can find hope and draw strength out of it, I believe things will get better. I would like people (with difficulty) to have hope. A positive attitude and hard work will pay off at the end.
• ESPNsoccernet: Lastly, is there anything you would like to share with our readers?
• Seol: It was a tough road for me getting here, but I'm not going to stop trying. I'd like to still give my best and work hard to display good performance on the pitch…for my fans and for my team.
• If you have comments on this article then email the author Daniel Cho.
• Read more from all Soccernet Correspondents here.