SOCCER/ Japan’s FC Korea takes aim at JFL

SOCCER/ Japan’s FC Korea takes aim at JFL

A soccer team in Japan made up of North and South Korean nationals that has its roots dating back to the swinging 1960s has been an inspiration to Koreans living in Japan for decades.

Now, FC Korea is hoping to take things a step further as it embarks on a quest for promotion to the Japan Football League.

FC Korea currently plays in the top division of the Kanto region amateur league. The JFL is the third division of Japan’s soccer league–behind the professional J.League first and second divisions–and consists of amateur and corporate teams as well as club teams aiming for the top flight.

FC Korea hopes that its promotion to the JFL will give a sense of pride to children of Korean descent living in Japan. This is the club’s biggest challenge yet.

At practice, the players for FC Korea communicate in Japanese, but for actual matches they shout to one another in their native Korean.

“We use Korean so our opponents don’t understand us,” says 24-year-old forward Kang Ho.

This season, the team placed seventh in the Kanto top division, barely escaping relegation by winning their last two matches. With that momentum, they won the national amateur tournament in October and won a berth to the finals of the national-level regional league.

FC Korea’s predecessor was formed in 1961. Back then, the players were hired by the General Association of Korean Residents (Chongryon), and therefore, were considered professionals. The team was promising, with some players representing North Korea at international matches.

But the team wasn’t allowed to play in official games in Japan because the number of non-Japanese players on the team exceeded the limit for official games.

After the team was allowed to join Tokyo’s fourth-division league as a semi-member in 1995, it went on to win the top league in 1998. But after that, the team struggled due to financial problems caused by the economic recession and an increase of North Korean players entering the J.League ranks. In 1999, Chongryon disbanded the team.

In 2002, the team was reborn under its new name, FC Korea, and run by a nonprofit organization.

“Among us Koreans living in Japan, there is no distinction between North and South Koreans,” says team manager Seong Chan Ho. “We accept anyone who has roots in Korea.”

FC Korea currently consists of 80 percent South Korean nationals and 20 percent North Korean nationals, according to Seong, 41.

Many of the players are third- or fourth-generation Korean-Japanese who are not the type to enthusiastically emphasize their ethnic background. Many members join simply because they want to play soccer. Attitudes of many have changed since joining the club, and they are proud to represent Koreans living in Japan.

Captain and midfielder Park Se-hoon had been approached by a J.League team in the past. But because the team’s quota for one Korean player was already filled, the team official said he would hire Park only if he acquired Japanese citizenship. Park turned down the offer.

“When I realized that that’s the only kind of offer I’m going to get, I began thinking about how I can help lead the Korean-Japanese soccer players,” Park, 27, says. “FC Korea became very important to me.”

Midfielder Che Kangyon says that during a team trip to Nagano earlier this year, local children of Korean descent were excited to see them play.

“Even if I can’t be a professional or a member of the North Korean national team, I want to show people that we Korean-Japanese can play in the JFL,” Che, 24, says.
By TORU NAKAKOJI/ Staff Writer

FC Korea Captain Park Se-hoon, left, takes a shot during a practice match. (Shiro Nishihata)