"She is one of the best midfielders in the world and our fans will love her.”
It has been two-and-a-half years since Chelsea manager Emma Hayes welcomed Ji Soyun to the club with these words. Everything in between has served to prove her right.
One, of course, has led to the other, with Blues fans falling head over heels with a player who proved herself to have few equals. Ji certainly made light of the football and cultural transition the move entailed, becoming England’s Player of the Year in her first full season. Not bad for someone who had never before played outside of Asia.
Yet if others were surprised at the speed with which the Korea Republic midfielder took English football by storm, Hayes was anything but. She had been smitten after watching Ji orchestrate a 4-2 win for Japan’s Inac Kobe Leonessa over Chelsea in the 2013 International Women’s Club Championship final. The Chelsea boss saw a playmaker whose balance, touch and ability to score and create goals marked her out as a potential world-beater and, within a month, had negotiated a deal to take the then 22-year-old to Stamford Bridge. And for all the subsequent successes of a player who was again named in England’s Team of the Year last season, Hayes is convinced that the best is yet to come.
“I’m sure she'll be nominated for the World Player of the Year in her career,” the Chelsea manager has said of Ji. "I wouldn’t be surprised if one day she is World Player of the Year.”
Naturally modest, Ji herself tends to shun such talk, just as she does the tag of ‘Korean Messi’ given to her in Asia. Nonetheless, she is proud of her achievements in English football and grateful that she took the risk of moving across the world in search of improvement and professional fulfilment.
“I was happy to move to Chelsea,” she told FIFA.com, “as it realised my childhood dream of playing in Europe, and it was also a good opportunity to enhance myself as a player by adapting to a different style of football. I think I was able to give everyone a fresh impression in a sense because my style must have been completely new to the players in England. I felt very lucky to have been voted Player of the Year, but proud too because I was the first Asian to receive such an honour here.”
I was delighted because the team enjoyed some good success and I was also happy to have made myself known to the rest of the world.
Ji’s rise has not been smooth or straightforward. Initially, her desire to become a footballer was tested not only by strong resistance from her father, but a dearth of opportunities. She had, though, been inspired at age 11 by the FIFA World Cup™’s arrival in Korea Republic in 2002, spending the tournament “glued to the television, watching every game”. Within six years of that global showpiece, she would be playing in one of her own, representing her country at the inaugural FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in New Zealand.
That tournament began promisingly, with Ji scoring twice as the South Koreans topped a group including Nigeria, England and Brazil. They would fall at the next hurdle, however, going down 4-2 to USA in the last eight. As such, Ji has fonder memories of her second finals – the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Germany two years later – when she won the adidas Silver Ball and Silver Boot, having scored eight times as her team finished third.
“At the U-17s, I was too young and nervous because it was my first time on the world stage,” she recalled. “But in that second World Cup, I was less nervous and was able to play well as I felt prepared for it. That tournament was definitely the more meaningful of the two for me. I was delighted because the team enjoyed some good success and I was also happy to have made myself known to the rest of the world.
“In both those World Cups, playing against world-class players, I saw I had a lot of room for improvement and that really motivated me. At the same time, I was able to build up my confidence as I saw that I could play better the harder I worked.”
Those lessons have since been taken on to Chelsea and to a senior Women’s World Cup, though Ji admitted to being “really disappointed” at not showing her full potential at Canada 2015.
“Perhaps I was too nervous,” she reflected. “That said, we were able to reach the second round for the first time, which was a milestone achievement. And I think we can do even better next time.”
If Ji and Hayes are right, we may have only scratched the surface with both Korea Republic and their star player.