Soccer in the wild West

There is no such thing as the paparazzi in Korea, and until the 2002 World Cup there was not even a word for “footballer”, only for “sportsman”. That, though, has not stopped Park Ji-Sung becoming ever more famous in his homeland.

The Manchester United midfielder was the centre of attention earlier this month when he came on to replace Ryan Giggs in the Champions League game against Lille. Giggs, United’s captain, passed on the captain’s armband as he came off, expecting Park to hand it to Rio Ferdinand.

Park thought it was meant for him, wore it for the last seven minutes of the match, and was mobbed after the game by Asian journalists who wanted to know what he thought about the honour of having been Manchester United captain. Ferdinand looked on disapprovingly. A cultural misunderstanding. It was not the first and it will not be the last.

“There is no question that Korean footballers have the ability to play in Europe,” says Park. “The real challenge is whether they will be able to adapt to Western culture.”

Asked to elaborate, he smiles sagely. It is difficult to know where to begin.

As Premiership clubs continue to scour the globe for talent, a new criterion of club expertise is becoming essential: the ability to assimilate a player into a completely foreign culture. It is a process that goes far beyond the realm of linguistics. Cultural differences run deep.

Park describes how, on arriving in Europe, he discovered a football-playing culture very different from his own. “In Korea, if a player doesn’t play well, you would never criticise him, but in European countries fans criticise their own teams, sometimes they boo them off the pitch,” he says, incredulously.

“In Korea, if a player makes a mistake, the other players don’t like to point it out, rather they try to embrace it, they take the attitude, ‘Let’s do better next time.’ But in the West, if you do something wrong, another player will make a point of saying something and you will have to fix it immediately.”

It is an enormous adjustment from a tradition of communality to a Western culture built around the importance of the individual. Both Park and Bolton’s Japanese signing, Hidetoshi Nakata, note how in England an open dialogue between players and their manager is encouraged. This would be unheard of in oriental cultures where the emphasis lies on being deferential to those in authority. In Korea, when the captain stands at the meal table, the team stand.

“In Japan, they treat players like a child,” says Nakata. “Here we are given choices.”

There are so many hidden cultural codes and potential pitfalls that, unless you have a guide, settling into a new culture can be a lonely experience. A number of players from the East have arrived in England — Akinori Nishizawa at Bolton, Qu Bo and Kazuyuki Toda at Tottenham, Junichi Inamoto at Arsenal, Fulham and West Brom to name a few — but not many have stayed for the long haul.

Manchester City’s Sun Jihai is one of the few successes. “When I first arrived to play for [Crystal] Palace, in 1998/99, it was very difficult for me. I felt very lonely here,” he says. Sun played only one season but returned to England in 2002 to sign for Manchester City.

The difference in the clubs’ approach was immeasurable.

“City introduced me to Wing, a restaurant owner in Manchester who became my closest friend. He translated things for me, like my work permit and letters from the club, or even bills that I had to pay. I could not write in my own chequebook. He helped me with everything. I don’t know if I would have stayed in this country without him.”

Everton’s Li Tie tells a similar story, having established a close connection to the Chinese community in Liverpool. He joins them for Chinese festivals and events.

Sun describes the unfamiliarity of seeing mainly white faces, and recalls a man hugging and kissing his mother when she came to visit. “In China, we only shake hands, you would never even hug and kiss your wife in public, never mind a woman you did not know!”

Hesitant to pass judgement on English culture, Park diplomatically prefers to discuss life in Holland, where he played for PSV Eindhoven. He describes it as ungenerous compared with Korea. “They always say mine is mine and yours is yours, they are not generous. Back home it is very different. If you go out for a drink with your friends you pay for everything, you would never just pay for your own drink.”

What of Western food? “As soon as I arrived in Europe my mum began teaching me how to cook for myself. I would have been forced to eat Western food otherwise! I’m a good cook — especially miso soup — but my mum still comes to visit and cooks for me. She makes lots of soups that I can store in the freezer. When I eat with the other players, of course then I eat Western food, but otherwise I always eat Korean.’”

Nakata is a very different personality. Famous in Japan for being an individual, he insists he feels more at home in Europe. He posts a very candid diary on his website, openly thwarting the Japanese cultural tradition of privacy and discretion. He adopts an intrinsically Western philosophy: “Before being a manager or a player, we are human beings. We have to talk to each other, otherwise we have no understanding.”

The Japanese use tatemae to honne, which means, literally, outside and inside and is understood as the difference between what is expressed and what is thought. Holding back true opinions saves embarrassing another.

Nakata laughs. “But you also have tatemae to honne over here, every country has it. It’s just that it works differently and unless you understand it you are always afraid of getting it wrong.” — Â

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