JUNE 16, 2019—Korean soccer history was made when the Korean national team came runner-up in the FIFA U-20 World Cup for the first time. In the middle of it all was Choi Jun (Soph., Dept. of Sport Industry Studies), scoring one of the best goals of the tournament nominated by FIFA and proudly representing both Yonsei University and college athletes amid the professional players. The Yonsei Annals interviewed Choi Jun to hear about how the U-20 World Cup transformed his life as a professional soccer player.
Annals: How did you start playing soccer?
Choi: Since my older brother played soccer in his student days, I naturally picked up the sport as well while growing up. When I first started, I never thought I would be where I am today. But one day, my middle school coach asked me whether I wanted to play seriously as he bought me my favorite snack after practice. Maybe it was because of that delicious snack, but I found myself not being able to say no.
Annals: When did you decide to become a professional soccer player and what prompted you to make that decision?
Choi: Before I officially decided to pursue my career as a professional soccer player, I had planned to stick with academics all the way through college. However, as I started to invest more time in soccer and less on studying, I realized that my passion had always been rooted in soccer, not in academics. There wasn’t any defining games or moments that impacted my decision; it was a gradual process that occurred throughout my middle school years.
My family also played a huge role in the decision. Though three generations of my family played soccer, for one reason or another, none of them ended up playing soccer professionally. So, when my family noticed my passion and talent for soccer, they gave me the best support anyone could ever ask for. Carrying the childhood dreams of my grandfather, father, and brother was too heavy of a burden to bear at times, but I thank them because had it not been for their support, I would not be where I am today, playing soccer on the world stage.
Annals: What were some unforgettable moments you had from your career before being selected for the national team?
Choi: Winning the National Sports Festival in my senior year in high school will forever be the most memorable moment from my career before the World Cup. Since the festival was the last tournament our high school team entered together, we wanted to enjoy our last moments as a team. Though we definitely wanted to win the competition, our focus was more on working our magic on the field one last time. Not only that, this festival means a lot to me because I was the one who scored the winning goal in the finals—my first and last goal in the tournament. All in all, winning that tournament is something that my high school friends and I still talk about. It really means a lot to us.
Annals: Did you experience any slumps in your career? If so, how did you overcome them?
Choi: During my junior year in high school, I once considered quitting soccer, but thankfully, my brother was my anchor and helped me through those times. During the darkest days of my career, he was the one who convinced me to keep going and not give up on my dreams. Whenever I had a bad day at practice or experienced a rough game, my brother would always come pick me up afterwards and treat me to a nice dinner, take me on a drive, and help me get my mind off the negative. As the saying goes, “even in darkness, there is light,” and true to form, my brother was that light.
Annals: How did you feel being one of the only two college athletes on the national team?
Choi: Before the World Cup, I was intimidated and felt that I would not be able to compete against the professional players. Koreans have a bias towards college athletes and often view them as inferior, so at first, I was extremely discouraged and began to believe that I was not skilled enough to be in the national team. However, as I kept showing good performances throughout the World Cup, I realized that I didn’t need to be confined as a “college athlete.” It was merely a label that was associated with me, and it didn’t mean I had to let it define and limit me.
Annals: Since the national team was rewriting Korean soccer history with every win, the team must have been under heavy pressure. How did you overcome such burden and stress?
Choi: I would say the cheers from our fans helped us the most. Initially, their expectations of us had the team under enormous pressure, but as they watched our pregame routines and cheered our names one by one, I felt the release of the pressure and stress. Their chants gave me and my teammates the energy to give it our all.
I also have my own routine that I follow before every game: I start everything with the left side of my body. From putting on socks to tying my shoes, I become a leftie for the day. Not only that, I always tape my elbow before the game starts—it doesn’t matter whether my elbow hurts or not, I just do it religiously.
Annals: How has the World Cup transformed you?
Choi: Though I can’t deny that my skills have definitely improved from playing in the World Cup, I would have to say that the biggest transformation I had was the improvement in my self-confidence. Playing against world renowned players and training with my fellow teammates, I could see the growth in my skills. But most importantly, with my goal against Ecuador in the semi-finals being nominated for the best goal by FIFA, I came to believe in myself more. Freeing myself from the stereotype against college athletes and getting over my low self-esteem was a game changer.
Annals: Finding the balance between academics and soccer must not be easy. As both a Yonsei University student and a professional soccer player, how does a day in your life look like?
Choi: Ever since I returned to Korea from the World Cup,I have been busy trying to make up for the classes I missed in the first semester. I plan on being more diligent and dedicated to my studies in the second semester to compensate for what I missed, though I may not be able to completely make up for it all.
I usually have soccer practice scheduled from 4 to 6 p.m., so I try to take my classes before or after those times. I always keep my Fridays off because Yonsei University’s soccer team has regular meets with other college
sports teams. Unfortunately, I do not have time to hang out with my friends during the weekdays because, apart from the regular practices and meets, I have morning practices from time to time and I work out on my own. Nowadays, there is barely even any time to spare for myself. But just like any other regular Yonsei student, I spend the weekends with my friends going to PC-bangs and bowling. After all, I am not too different from an average college student—just a bit busier.
Annals: What are your plans and goals for the future? What kind of soccer player do you aspire to be?
Choi: My short-term goals are to win the fall-winter season in the college sports league and to beat Korea University in the Yon-Ko Games. In the long-term, I wish to join the professional league, starting with the Korean league and making my way up to Bundesliga*.
As for what kind of soccer player I wish to become, I aspire to be like Lee Yong. I play left-wing**, so when Koreans think of left-wing players, they immediately think of Lee. As time passes, I hope that I will be able to make a big enough impression that would make people think of me when they think of left-wing players.
Annals: Any last words for your fans?
Choi: So much attention has been given to me ever since the World Cup, and for that, I am very grateful. But I wish for this attention to be given to all of the national soccer team. There are a lot of talented players in Korea, and if the amount of love and attention I have received can also be shared amongst everyone else, Korea’s future in soccer will have nothing but success. Thank you!
*Bundesliga: Germany’s professional soccer league
**Left-wing: A soccer term referring to the defender stationed in the left, responsible for both defense and attack