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The Origins of Korean Soccer
[Korean Firsts 1] The myth and reality of the beautiful game's arrival on the peninsula
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2007-02-07 17:04 (KST)   
This is the first article in a series of "Korean firsts" by historian and longtime resident of South Korea, Robert Neff.  <Editor's Note>
HMS Flying Fish -- Korea's alleged source of Soccer
©2007 Robert Neff collection

According to popular belief, soccer was first introduced into Korea in June 1882 when the British warship, HMS Flying Fish, arrived at Chemulpo (modern day Incheon). Allegedly, while Admiral Willes was concluding the British-Korean treaty, several crew members of the HMS Flying Fish went ashore, played soccer, and then left the soccer ball with a group of Korean children.

During the 2002 World Cup, this story was often repeated as a fact. Sports Illustrated wrote: "Incheon is said to be the birthplace of soccer in Korea. A group of children imitated crewmen from a visiting British warship playing kick-about in 1882. The sailors left a couple of leather soccer balls behind when they left."[1]

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Even noted historians have given credence to this story. Prof. Andrei Lankov misidentified the ship as the Flying Horse, but supported Sports Illustrated's story when he wrote: "While off duty, the British sailors decided to play a game of football -- to the great amusement and bewilderment of Koreans present at the scene. This was obviously the first football match in Korea's history, and now 1882 is considered to be the year when football was first introduced in Korea."

Other writers give a more negative view of the events:

JoongAng Daily wrote: "It must have been very hot in June that summer. It must have been frustrating to spend several days on board a ship while landing permission was delayed. The crews of the Flying Fish, a British survey ship, played soccer on the deck. But the 67-ton ship must have been too small for that. The sailors stealthily got off the ship and kicked the ball at the Yeonan Pier in the port of Incheon. Surprised at the noise, Joseon soldiers roused them and the sailors hurriedly returned to the ship. They forgot to take their equipment with them, and a soccer ball was left behind. The children who were watching the whole scene took the ball and started to play with it. In 1882, soccer arrived in Korea very quietly." [2]

Skynews echoed JoongAng Daily's account: "Crews bored to death got off the ship and played kicking a football in a pier without getting permission from the Korean authorities (That was late Chosun period). When Chosun soldiers raided the site, the crews fled to their ship leaving a soccer ball. Kids watching the soccer game of the British sailors curiously took the ball and played kicking it. That was the start of soccer here in Korea."[3]

But was this truly the start of soccer in Korea? The story is obviously supported by the Korean and British government, as evidenced by their web pages and press releases. According to an email correspondence with the British Embassy's public affairs section:

"... the 1882 story is supported by the Korean Football Association, the Royal Navy and the Embassy."

The Korean Football Association public affairs office could not shed any light on the story's origin, despite the fact that they have published a book on the history of soccer in Korea. When asked for historical citation, the public affairs officer stated that the story of the HMS Flying Fish's role in soccer history is a well-known fact.

History is filled with the "well-known facts" of famous men and events. Many Americans still believe that as a boy, George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and when confronted by his angry father confessed, "Father, I cannot tell a lie; I chopped down the cherry tree." However, a little bit of research reveals that the story is nothing more than a romantic attempt to "flesh out a believable and interesting figure [and] to humanize Washington."[4]

Despite the British embassy's attempts over the past week to acquire documentation to support this story, it has been unable to. In fact, Dr. James E. Hoare, former British Ambassador to North Korea and noted historian, wrote:

"I tend to share Mr. Neff's doubts about this story, and I have never used it myself. If football was played anywhere, it would have been on Komundo, where the British were present for a long period."

We know that in the first week of June 1882 that there were two American, three British, one French, one Japanese, and five Chinese warships in the harbor of Incheon -- mainly as escorts or observers of the Western diplomatic efforts in Korea. Except for the French, all quickly conducted their business and were gone by June 8. There are no accounts in the English newspapers published in Japan or China, or in official dispatches mentioning the sailors going ashore for anything other than official business.

Incheon at this time was a very small village and when the warships arrived "the people became panic stricken; and old men, women and children fled to the hills..."[5] It is very unlikely that the Korean children, let alone the adults, who were alleged to have great "antipathy to foreigners" would have approached the sailors.

"I agree," Dr. Hoare wrote, "that the general attitude towards foreigners was not conducive to setting up a game of football on the beach, and I am not sure that the naval authorities would have welcomed their men taking part in what was still a somewhat disorganized affair."

Chemulpo in the mid 1880s
©2007 Robert Neff collection
While it is possible that the event did occur but was not recorded, the burden of proof lies with those who insist that it did. So if soccer was not introduced into Korea in 1882, when was it introduced?

According to The Independent, Korea's first English-language newspaper, soccer was introduced in late November 1896 when Korean students at the Royal English School in Seoul were taught how to play soccer by an unnamed "foreign friend of the school." The following month, the editor of The Independent enthusiastically wrote:

"The boys go at it [playing soccer] with such vim and earnestness that they have won the praise and admiration of their instructor. It was a pleasure to see them in their natty uniforms, with their faces flushed, chasing after the leather sphere with such agility and in such a whole-souled manner, appearing as if their lives depended on the game."[6]

Reverend Arthur B. Turner, an energetic Englishman well known for his prowess in soccer and cricket, springs to mind as the possible "foreign friend of the school," but Sergeant Boxwell, a member of the British Legation's guard who taught drill and ceremony at the school might also have been this anonymous soul.

The Independent - Korea's first English newspaper
©2007 Robert Neff collection

Undoubtedly in the months to follow, the students had many matches among themselves, but the first international and public match took place on Saturday afternoon, March 26, 1897, in a field near the East Gate. Crew members of the British warship, HMS Narcissus, challenged the students and their coach to a friendly game of soccer -- Association Rules, of course. One must remember that soccer in those days was much rougher and probably more like rugby than the version of the game we know today.

While the names of all the participants of both teams are readily available, it is the Korean team that we are primarily interested in. The team was made up of Reverend Turner and several other Englishmen, but more than half the players were Korean. One particular player, Song Keung-san was noted for his excellent ability which "would not have disgraced an English public school boy."

The game was "well fought," but in the end, the Korean team was victorious with their single goal. The newspaper noted that it was "the first match in which any Koreans have played."[7] But it wasn't the last game.

On Dec. 16, 1897, another game was held near the East Gate and once again the Korean team won both the match and praise from the "considerable number" of "enthusiastic spectators" who braved the bitterly cold weather to cheer on the Korean students. The final score was 6:2 but, as the newspaper editor noted "the most prominent feature of the game was the plucky way in which the Koreans tackled their stronger and heavier [English] opponents."

While there apparently is no evidence or questionable evidence at best, that the history of soccer began in 1882 with the coming of the British navy to Korea, there is no question that the first soccer matches between Korean students and English sailors were played in 1897. Matches that I might add, were won by the Koreans.
[1] Sports Illustrated
[2] JongAng Daily
[3] SkyNews
[4] Karal Ann Marling, historian, cited here.
[5] Elliot Griffis, Corea, The Hermit Nation, p. 436; North China Herald, July 7, 1882, p. 15
[6] The Independent, December 3, 1896
[7] The Independent, March 30, 1897
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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