South Korea breaks old prejudices and embraces women’s football

Jung Ji-hyun was one of two girls who played soccer at her elementary school, attended by some 400 students. His love for sports had started by playing football with boys in his neighborhood.

While the other girl had to stop playing due to her parents’ opposition, Jung carried on thanks to her relatively less strict parents and in college she joined a club, even though he barely had enough people to play.

“The fact that they create content that combines football and culture really appealed to me,” Jung said of Romance FC, an amateur women’s team that aims to create opportunities for female players on and off the pitch.

Jung, based on her experience bouncing around in community clubs, said that most Koreans only want to watch or play, but she also wants to be creative. Disappointed that a team like Romance FC doesn’t exist in South Korea, she was determined: “If we don’t have one, I thought, ‘I’ll make one!'”

In 2019, Jung and her football friends founded an amateur team, Nutty FC, in hopes of developing interest in women’s football in South Korea.

“‘Nutty’ has an ambiguous meaning. It represents our desire to be quirky, refusing to be ordinary,” Jung said. “And C of ‘FC’ stands for Creatives, not Club.”

As well as playing games at least once a week, Nutty FC engage in creative work including designing uniforms, exhibiting their work and creating reels to try and make football girly viral in a country that loves Tottenham star Son Heung-min and the rest of the men’s national team, but not much else.

Nutty FC has grown over the years and now has members from a variety of backgrounds. But they all have the same ambition: to change the scene of women’s football in the country.

Women choosing to wear boots

In June 2021, Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS) launched a reality TV show, “Kick a Ball”, where female TV personalities, including actors, models, singers and comedians, performed at the football under the guidance of 2002 World Cup heroes like Lee Youngpio.

The show’s unique concept of newbies improving their skills captured the imagination, bringing in a peak viewership rating of 9.5 percent in December 2021, according to Nielson Korea.

But the impact was greater than pure entertainment.

Plab Football, a social sports platform that organizes its users to play futsal – a game similar to five-a-side football – without having to search for players, said it saw a 45.2% increase in female users in July 2021 from from the previous month, when “Kick a Ball” first aired.

The platform categorizes its users into five different tiers based on their skills, with tier five indicating a professional and tier one a beginner. Data from the app shows that more than 50% of the total 11,074 users are rated at Level 2 or below.

“I feel the interest in women’s football has skyrocketed thanks to ‘Kick a Ball’,” Jung said.

The SBS show 'Kick a Ball' helped spark interest in women's soccer in Korea, which led to an increase in applications for Nutty FC.

When Nutty FC opened recruiting in March 2022, the number of applicants nearly doubled from 2020, and the majority said the show had inspired them, according to Jung.

Jung explained that his friends, who initially refused to join Nutty FC because “they don’t know how to play”, were now forming their own teams made up of members who were also new to the sport.

“It’s very encouraging that the number of entry-level teams has increased,” she said.

As the number of ordinary women involved in the game increases, Jung said there is more to do for women’s football in Korea.

Embrace and develop women’s football

Ji So-yun, the first South Korean to play in England’s Women’s Super League (WSL), returned to her homeland to play for Suwon FC Women after winning 12 trophies with Chelsea FC Women.

During her press conference in May, the 31-year-old midfielder pointed out that women’s football in South Korea still lags behind that of European countries, where women’s professional teams are run together with the men’s team under a same club.

“I was attracted to Suwon FC because it is the first national club to manage both a men’s team and a women’s team,” Ji explained.

“In England, clubs promote the men’s and women’s teams together. I think that’s how the women’s team has gained a lot of supporters.”

Ji also mentioned the inconvenient kick-off time of South Korea’s semi-professional WK League, which has been readjusted since June from 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. local time to 7:00 p.m. local on weekdays. The Korea Women’s Football Federation (KWFF) cited “increased interest in women’s football” and to allow “easier game viewing”.

According to the KWFF, the WK League averaged 353 spectators per game in 2019, far less than European women’s leagues.

England’s Women’s Super League (WSL) averaged 1,931 spectators per game in the 2021/22 season, and Barcelona Femení, the Spanish giant’s women’s team, set a world football attendance record women’s with 91,648 fans turning up to see their Champions League semi-final. against Wolfsburg in April 2022.

To fill the stands, Jung of Nutty FC suggested that WK League teams charge for tickets.

Currently, Suwon FC is the only team among the eight-team league that charges fans – 5,000 KRW ($3.81) for adults and 1,000 KRW ($0.76) for children – although this is one third of the price of a ticket for men..

“The league needs revenue to improve, and it needs to improve to attract fans. But it’s a pity that it didn’t happen,” Jung explained.

Nutty FC players strategize during a training session.

Ji also believed the WK League needed more sponsorship, pointing to the WSL’s “historic” broadcast deal struck last year with Sky Sports and the BBC.

“They have [BBC & Sky] streamed more games this year, leading to an increase in sponsorships, many of which [sponsors] who want the women’s team as their main team [investment]”, she said during her press conference. “I hope it will also happen in Korea.”

Ji was also convinced that she would make the league more competitive, thus attracting more spectators. “I’m here to change the dynamic,” she said.

“We amateur gamers will continue to make efforts behind the scenes,” Jung told CNN. “I want to change perceptions, that the women who play football become as obvious as the men who play.”

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