Daily Mail

I’M READY TO FIGHT IF THE WAR COMES... I’d tell Ben­itez: ‘I need to pro­tect my fam­ily and my coun­try’

New­cas­tle’s KI SUNG-YUENG talks guns, grenades, Korea con­flict and his mil­i­tary ser­vice

- By Craig Hope @CraigHope_DM Sports · Warfare and Conflicts · World Politics · Politics · South Korea · Korea Republic national football team · Rafael Benítez · London · Australia · United Kingdom · Seoul · Celtic F.C. · Celtic Park · Swansea · Sunderland · Sunderland Association Football Club · West Ham United F.C. · Japan · Japan national football team · John Paul College · FC Seoul · Swansea City A.F.C. · Han Hye-jin

KI Sung-yueng is search­ing for the right word. ‘I threw the weapon,’ he starts. ‘ What’s it called? The one with the pin?’ A grenade? ‘ yes, a grenade.’ With that, he mo­tions with his teeth to pull the pin be­fore bowl­ing over­arm to­wards the cor­ner of the room.

‘Then, you run and... this, you do this,’ he says, rais­ing both arms in pro­tec­tion of his head.

The point Ki is try­ing to make is this: he is ready for war. not some clichéd battle at the bot­tom of the Premier League with new­cas­tle united, but real war with grenades and guns. It brings a whole new mean­ing to the term ‘com­bat­ive mid­fielder’.

Ki, by way of ex­pla­na­tion, is cap­tain of South Korea, whose re­la­tions with north Korea re­main frag­ile. The con­flict dates back to the end of the Sec­ond World War and the di­vi­sion of Korea, lead­ing to open war­fare in 1950 and 1.2mil­lion fa­tal­i­ties.

The fear of re­newed hos­til­i­ties means ev­ery South Korean man — even their most cel­e­brated sports­men — must com­plete a pe­riod of mil­i­tary ser­vice, pre­par­ing them for an in­ter­na­tional callup of a dif­fer­ent kind.

‘ I would be ready,’ says the 29-year-old. ‘I want to be ready. I want to help my coun­try. I would have to tell my man­ager, Rafa Ben­itez, “I am go­ing to­mor­row, I am go­ing to pro­tect my fam­ily and my coun­try”.’ Ki has spent the past hour talk­ing foot­ball but only now is he an­i­mated. He takes us back to the mil­i­tary camp where he trained to be a sol­dier in 2016.

‘I woke up at 6.30am ev­ery day,’ he be­gins. ‘you as­sem­ble in front of the build­ing and there, 250 of us, we sang the na­tional an­them.

‘In the morn­ing you learn a skill: shoot­ing the gun, throw­ing the grenade. Then, in the af­ter­noon, you are tested. I was bad with the gun. you fire 20 bul­lets each time at three tar­gets — 100, 150 and 250 me­tres — but I hit only seven times. The grenade, I had to throw in a hole 30 me­tres away, I was bet­ter at that.

‘One day, we had to pack all of our things and carry our gun on a 20km walk.’ That must have been easy for an ath­lete?

‘not re­ally,’ he says, ‘I’d pre­fer to be run­ning around a foot­ball pitch!’ Ki’s face writhes as he de­scribes the next drill.

‘Then we were put in the gas room. you have to stay there for one minute. Af­ter the minute you must change masks with your part­ner.

‘you can’t breathe. Some peo­ple, they were cry­ing, their noses and eyes were run­ning. It was crazy, it was so scary.’

Ki is mar­ried to the South Korean ac­tress Han Hye-jin and their wed­ding was front-page news in 2013. One year ear­lier, he led his coun­try to a bronze medal at the Lon­don Olympics, an achieve­ment that al­lowed him to serve four weeks in­stead of the manda­tory 18 months con­scrip­tion.

He was, he ad­mits, in­stantly recog­nised by his fel­low soldiers, de­spite swap­ping his foot­ball kit for khakis.

‘My­self and my wife, we are not Posh and Becks but yes, ev­ery­one knew who I was,’ he says.

‘But the at­mos­phere is not like that. It’s not like, “Oh, Ki, can you sign my top?”. you can’t talk to the per­son next to you, ev­ery­one fol­lows the in­struc­tions.

‘But I felt the ap­pre­ci­a­tion for ev­ery man in the army, I re­spect them so much. They sac­ri­fice their life to pro­tect our coun­try.

‘I learned things I would never do oth­er­wise. It means I am ready to fight if the war comes, be­cause I do not know what will hap­pen in the fu­ture.’

Ki knows what he would like to hap­pen. He ex­plains how he has rel­a­tives he has never met in north Korea. His voice soft­ens, re­veal­ing that, be­cause of the news blackout in the com­mu­nist coun­try, they have no idea he is a fa­mous foot­baller.

‘ I would like north and South Korea to­gether,’ he says. ‘ We are the same peo­ple. My grand­par­ents, they es­caped from the north af­ter the war in the 1950s.

‘A lot of my fam­ily from my grand­par­ents are still in north Korea and I have never been, they don’t know who I am, that makes me feel sad.’ KI was 13 years old when his fa­ther de­cided that send­ing him to Aus­tralia was best for his aca­demic and sport­ing de­vel­op­ment. ‘My fa­ther was a wise man,’ he Power cou­ple: Ki Ki­with with his wife, ac­tress Han Hye-jin GETTY IM­AGES says. Far more wise, it would ap­pear, than the Aus­tralian class­mates who found pro­nun­ci­a­tion of his name too dif­fi­cult.

‘They called me Dave,’ he re­veals. ‘The teacher asked me to have an english name and I just wanted a nor­mal one so I went for David.’ Ki did not speak english upon ar­rival at John Paul Col­lege in Bris­bane, and even af­ter nine years in great Bri­tain he is still learn­ing. ‘I watch netflix to help with my english. My favourites? I love Home­land, and Nar­cos,’ he says.

‘But it was hard for me at first in Aus­tralia, with­out my fam­ily and not speak­ing the lan­guage. I was afraid.

‘ev­ery­one was al­ways ask­ing me, “Why have you gone to Aus­tralia?”. But my dad knew of the op­por­tu­nity, even then he thought I would play in the Premier League and needed to speak english. ‘He was a foot­ball man­ager a at high school and I was in A Aus­tralia at high-school age, so he lost his best player! But he chose what was best for me.’ Ki was signed by FC Seoul af­ter com­plet­ing his ed­u­ca­tion be­fore mov­ing to Celtic Park for £2.1mil­lion lioT in 2009. Three years later came a £6m move to Swansea — a stay that in­cluded n a suc­cess­ful loan spell at Sun­der­land — but rel­e­ga­tion wi with the Swans last sea­son led to a phone call from Ben­itez an and a free-trans­fer switch to St Ja James’ Park. K Ki, as Ben­itez joked last week, was the ‘key’ to the re­cent three straight vic­to­ries which co­in­cided with his be­lated in­tro­duc­tion to the team. He was again new­cas­tle’s best player on Satur­day but could not pre­vent a 3-0 de­feat by West Ham. He loves ev­ery­thing about the ‘ beau­ti­ful’ north east ex­cept the weather — ‘dark and wet, all the time’ — and he is one of few play­ers pop­u­lar with fans of both new­cas­tle and Sun­der­land, the club he helped to the League Cup fi­nal in 2014. Ki’s wife and three-yearold daugh­ter are with him and the ar­rival of Ja­pan striker yoshi­nori Muto means a shared pas­sion for fish­ing has led to talk of an end- of­sea­son cel­e­bra­tion along the River Tyne. ‘When we stay up, my­self and yoshi­nori can go fish­ing, be­cause we aren’t go­ing in this weather!’ he says. ‘I’m not very good, but I love it.’ Ki must hope it is only ever a fish­ing rod he throws over his shoul­der, and that he never has to see a hand-grenade again.

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