Tuesday 21 May 2019, 01:07

Soyun: I am a better player than four years ago

  • Korea Republic star Ji Soyun speaks exclusively with FIFA.com

  • Taegeuk Nangja to face hosts France in tournament opener

  • Soyun says her team have improved since Canada 2015

In Korea Republic, Ji Soyun’s name always comes after such prefixes as the ‘youngest’, the ‘first ever’, or the ‘best’, whenever she is mentioned in the field of women’s football. Having scored a brace against Chinese Taipei on her international debut at the tender age of 15 years and 282 days in October 2006, Soyun has been at the core of the emergence of women’s football in her country over the past decade.

Soyun first came to prominence on the world stage by leading the Taegeuk Nangja to third at the 2010 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Germany, and represented her country at the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ in Canada five years later.

With France 2019 just around the corner, FIFA.com sat down with a confident Soyun at the National Football Centre in Paju after a long season in England and Europe.

FIFA.com: Your trailblazing career reminds many of the legendary Cha Bumkun. How do you feel being regarded as a pioneer of women’s football in Korea? Ji Soyun: Obviously I’m honoured to be compared to Cha Bumkun in the first place, and I’m proud to play a similar role for Korean football in the women’s game. I’m also glad to see that younger players coming after me can play in better surroundings. Sometimes I feel under pressure, of course, but even the pressure motivates me.

Did you know that your nickname is ‘Soyun Messi’ back in your native country? Yes. (Chuckles.) It’s been a long while, actually. I think I’m criticised severely whenever I don’t play well because of that nickname, but what can I say if they expect me to play better? Now I’m fine with that. I guess that’s just the way it is. That said, I would prefer to simply be called by my name rather than be compared to any male player. My team-mates at Chelsea simply call me ‘Soyun’ by the way.

A couple of your team-mates – Maren Mjelde and Maria Thorisdottir – made Norway’s squad for France 2019. Have you talked with them about the prospect of playing against one another? No, not at all. We’re good friends. But since we found out that we are in the same group, we have never talked to each other. Probably a mind game was being played there, because I have talked to everybody else [who would play in other groups at the World Cup finals] all the time!

During the UEFA Women’s Champions League campaign, you faced French sides PSG and Olympique Lyonnais, featuring some key members of the French national team. Tell us about that experience and scoring with a spectacular free-kick against Lyon in the semi-finals? I’d always wanted to play against Lyon one day. They were world-class players as I’d expected, but I don’t think they’re way beyond our level or that we cannot compete against them. We didn’t play well in the return leg at home, to be honest, so when the free-kick was given I thought that was a great chance I could not afford to waste. Besides, that is my favourite spot to take a free-kick from, and that was my zone. I believed I could score from there because I’d been practicing the kicks from near the D – they call it the 'Ji Soyun zone' at Chelsea.

And you played the quarter-final against PSG at the Parc des Princes, where Korea Republic will meet hosts France in the tournament’s Opening Match. The atmosphere was great. The Parisian fans were very passionate, standing in the stands, jumping and singing all the time. I thought, ‘Wow, they really love football!’ and felt a bit envious of such strong support for their team. The stadium itself was massive, but I won’t be intimidated by anything. The fans inside the stadium cheering for their national team – we’ve been through that before.

You mean, the sell-out crowd [almost 50,000] at Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Stadium two years ago, against Korea DPR on the road to France 2019? Yes, I remember the moment [Jang] Selgi scored the equaliser in the second half, and we all went crazy to celebrate because that goal eventually took us through the qualifiers and gave us the chance to be in France. The crowd suddenly became silent at that moment, and we could only hear our voices. We had prepared for it back home with loudspeakers on the pitch side playing crowd noises during training, and I think that really helped. We’ve survived in Pyongyang, so why can’t we in Paris?

Four years ago at Canada 2015, you didn’t seem to be your usual self after suffering an injury during the group stage. Do you have any regrets? (Sighs.) I remember every moment of it. I was under so much pressure and I admit that I didn’t play as well as expected. We had overcome all the difficulties to reach the Round of 16, so sitting on the bench against France was painful. But we could not waste a substitute option because of me. I remember watching the great players of France beating us, and I’m sure they’ve got even better now, but so have we. After that experience I’ve grown into a better player than I was four years ago, and I have put that disappointment behind me.

What do you think is the difference between the national team four years ago and now? Four years ago, it was the first World Cup for everybody except [goalkeeper Kim] Jungmi, but now we’ve got many players who experienced the finals four years ago. It’s difficult to predict but we will try hard to get at least a point. Our first goal is to reach the second round. I know that will be difficult, but we can reach the goal only if we believe we can. And once we reach the initial goal, we’d be hungry for more.

What about personal goals then? I always screw up whenever I set a personal goal, so I just try to play my game and play better than I did four years ago. I don’t really care about the numbers, goals or assists. It doesn’t matter if I score or not. I only hope we can reach our team goal and enjoy the game.