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
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.