Korea's 'Aussie' Ki set for Brisbane return

When South Korea take on the Socceroos on January 17 in Brisbane the game will have a little more meaning to one Taeguk Warrior than that of his team-mates.

Brisbane is Ki Sung-yueng's old stomping ground and one he speaks of fondly. As a 13 year-old, he enrolled in elite football programme at John Paul College in Brisbane, one run by Jeff Hopkins, a native of the city where Ki now plays his club football. 

Swansea City has come a long way since Hopkins retired from playing in 2000 and so has the South Korean.

The midfielder's career has had ups and downs to rival roller-coasters in the Samsung-owned Everland theme park just outside Suwon, the city that calls itself Korea's football capital. 

This is a jibe at bitter rivals FC Seoul, the club that Ki turned down Queensland Roar to join, making his full debut in 2007.

Even fans of Suwon Bluewings quickly admitted he had a bright future and by 2008, as a 19 year-old, he was playing for his country. If things go well in the next few weeks, he will draw close to the 75 appearance mark. 

Not bad for 25 year-old who signed for Celtic in the summer of 2009 for around $3 million and is now a regular in the English Premier League.

Ki, as comfortable in possession as any in the English Premier League, makes Korea tick but in the past has ticked plenty of his compatriots off. Just eighteen months ago, his future in the team looked uncertain. 

It was all down to his criticism of Choi Kang-hee. In February 2012, in a vital World Cup qualifier against Kuwait, Choi, then-head coach, left Ki on the bench for the first half of a laboured performance. It was only late in the game that the goals came.

Ki went on his private Facebook page and let rip, warning the boss that he would know better than to leave the European-based players on the bench. 

It all came out after Choi, who did seem more comfortable in surrounding himself with domestic players in his troubled 18 month tenure, left in July 2013, hinting at divisions in the team between those in Europe and those still at home.

A journalist in Korea, part of Ki's Facebook group, then revealed the player's earlier comments and the football media went mad. It may not seem like much but it was a very Korean episode -reflecting parts of the country's culture in terms of society, media and the internet.

At a basic level, there was disapproval of a young player, already seen as relatively brash (perhaps down to his time in Australia, theorised some) behaving disrespectfully to a senior and well-respected coach. Fortunately for Ki, he was in England on club duty when it all broke. By the time he returned to face Brazil in October 2013, the issue had calmed down a little though he had to make a number of apologies, both public and private.


At Seoul World Cup Stadium, when the teams were announced before the game, there was talk of Ki's name being jeered. It wasn't, even if the cheers were not as loud as usual. Korea was second best in a 2-0 loss but Ki was the most impressive home performer and left the field to acclaim.

That was a turning point and the midfielder has never looked back. For club, on Sunderland on loan last season and Swansea this, he has been consistently impressive. Not the type for crazy goals or mazy runs, Ki just loves the ball and his passes, short or long, rarely go wrong.

For Korea too, he was one of the few players to leave Brazil with a reputation enhanced and was especially excellent in the opening 1-1 draw with Russia, earning praise from Fabio Capello. Ki tends to sit deep for the national team, always available for defenders and always thinking two or three passes ahead.

He may be thinking a couple of games ahead at the moment too - toward the game against the Socceroos in the city he used to call home.