Running out on to the field at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth to face Greece in the first game of South Korea’s 2010 World Cup campaign, Kim Jung-Woo was fulfilling a lifelong dream.
The defensive midfielder would go on to play three more games for his country with distinction as they reached the second round, where they were knocked out by eventual semi-finalists Uruguay, 2-1.
Before then, Woo had the chance to come up against Argentina, where he went toe-to-toe with Lionel Messi.
The World Cup dream was over, but the midfielder was still given the privilege of reaching the level that every player in world football aspires to. The experience of playing on the biggest stage was enough to imbue Woo with a confidence he had never felt, but it also dealt him a blow he wasn’t expecting.
“There were two aspects to the World Cup,” he explained. “I played against so many star players, and that gave me a huge amount of experience.
“I played in every game of the World Cup and I played a lot of big games, so after that I have been so confident about playing other games. I have been so confident ever since.
“The other aspect is that I targeted the World Cup as my primary motivation all my career, but after I played in it, I felt nothing. I accomplished my dream, I felt nothing and a little fallen down mentally.”
Since 2010, Woo has been searching for new experiences and new challenges to occupy his mind. Fortunately, the 31-year-old feels as if he has now found the right place.
The South Korean arrived at newly-promoted Arabian Gulf League side Sharjah this week, completing a foreign quartet of Ze Carlos, Felipe Gabriel and Mauricio Ramos, all of whom come with high recommendation.
The club also pulled off one of the more unheralded coups of the summer, naming former Al Shabab and Al Jazira coach Paolo Bonamigo as manager, while their local player base is centred on five youngsters who will compete for the UAE Under-23 side in the forthcoming Gulf Cup.
North of Dubai, there is real confidence ahead of the new season. And so they should be with a motivated player like Woo joining their ranks.
“It has been so hard to try and find new targets, so that’s another aspect of this challenge of coming to Sharjah,” the experienced midfielder said of his move to the Middle East.
Since South Korea co-hosted the World Cup in 2002 and pulled off a stunning fourth-place finish, the competition has taken on an extra significance for the country.
Like so many others, Woo was just a teenager making his way in the game when Guus Hiddink led the national team on their shock run to the semi-final. It was then that Woo fell completely in love with the game and decided to dedicate his career to playing at the world’s greatest sporting event.
“The passion that came from the 2002 World Cup happened all over the country so through that World Cup, the national team members became massive heroes,” said a beaming Woo.
“I watched that World Cup in the host nation and I felt I want to be another hero like them. I was 18 or 19 and I was the next generation and wanted to wear the uniform of the South Korean team because I wanted to be part of the passion.”
Woo had a particular affinity for Lee Chun- Soo, a player who would later help him in his career. Their style of play could hardly be further apart, but Soo ended up playing a large part in Woo’s shaping as a professional player.
“Lee Chun-Soo, he has the kind of genius talent, he’s a bit of a lazy boy but he has real talent. He was also a senior he was a year older than me. He’s not a mentor, more of a peer, a partner, he was someone who looked after me.”
After the bright lights of the World Cup, Woo has continued to play in the Far East before now turning his attention to the UAE’s Arabian Gulf League.
Despite not speaking either English or Arabic, he is looking to stay in Sharjah for the long haul and is well aware of what a sizeable task he is undertaking. On top of that, he has already had a few embarrassing cultural lessons after a faux pas or two at the training ground.
“I am satisfied with the new circumstances. I need to learn some kind of language, maybe English or Arabic, that would be a good start to my adaptation here,” Woo added.
“With regards to the culture, a funny thing has happened just now, right after training, I was taking a shower. I took off everything, including my pants.
“Then my friends, my team-mates, they shouted at me ‘hey, don’t take off your pants!’, even in the shower you have to wear pants, this is the kind of new thing I need to get used to.”
There may be challenges ahead, both on and off the pitch for Woo, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
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