"I find Japan a really good place to live. There's very little crime here, so kids can do their own thing outside, and you can take a walk late at night. But the best thing about Japan for me, as a soccer player, is that the fans really want me to succeed."
Noh Jung-Yoon is obviously happy when he says this. At 30, he has won an excellent reputation as a mid-fielder for Cerezo Osaka, one of the teams in the J. League, Japan's pro soccer league. His tremendous spurts of energy and his never-give-up attitude have kept his teammates going right to the final minute, even when they were down in the game. His energy and attitude made him a leading player on the team.
Noh was born in the city of Incheon, in the Republic of Korea. He was 5 when he first played with a soccer ball. "In those days, soccer was about the only game there was for a kid in our neighborhood. It's a great game--two people can play, or twenty. Anybody can play. It's the most enjoyable thing I know."
As soon as he gets the ball, his legs are like lightning. When he was young, his brilliant footwork set him apart from everyone else, and in the national junior and senior high school championships, he led his teams to victory. He was chosen for his country's Youth Team (16 and under), and then, at the age of 18, he struck gold, being awarded a position on the national soccer team. No other player had been chosen so young.
After he entered the prestigious Korea University, he represented the Republic of Korea at the Barcelona Olympics (1992). He was running with the best, a star with the future before him. People said he would give new energy to soccer in Korea.
But as soon as he graduated from university he crossed over to Japan to become a professional soccer player there. People in his circle were shocked, and the media made a fuss too, asking why he would want to play for a Japanese team. After all, Japan was the Republic of Korea's major sporting rival in Asia.
"That was the same year the J. League was formed, in 1993. I knew that some of the world's best soccer players were joining Japanese teams in the League--guys like Lineker, Zico and Littbarski. I wanted to play with or against them." He grins, "I was young, and adventurous...."
He says that Japan offered an ideal environment for a pro soccer player, with excellent stadiums and enthusiastic fans. "In my country, soccer was basically a matter of physical strength. The team with the most stamina would come out on top. In Japan, though, teamwork and skill are considered more important. This was a new concept for me, something more interesting."
To communicate better with his teammates, Noh began studying Japanese at a language school every day after practice. "I found Japanese easy to learn because the grammar is similar to Korean. And I had no trouble adapting to Japan--even the food is quite similar to what we eat in Korea."
Another reason he found it easy to adapt was the support he got from his wife, You Young Ok. They have two children, 4 and 5 years old.
"The 2002 FIFA World Cup will be co-hosted by the Republic of Korea and Japan very soon, and this will surely lead to more contact between the two countries. I believe that relations between our two nations will continue to grow. In my case, for example, soccer has given me the opportunity to make many Japanese friends."
After I interviewed him, it was reported that Noh would leave Cerezo Osaka and return to the Republic of Korea. But then on August 10 he announced his decision to stay in Japan and play for another J...League club, Avispa Fukuoka. I am sure that his motto will keep guiding him in Fukuoka: "No matter how long life is, never let time slip by." His approach will continue to bring Japan and the Republic of Korea closer together.
Noh Jung-Yoon chats with Soejima Hiroshi, Cerezo Osaka's coach, after a training session. Until his recent departure from Cerezo, Noh was a leading force on the team, and was keener than anyone to help train young players and give them some pointers.
After a while in Japan, Noh joined a professional Dutch team for a year. "If Japanese players train and play abroad, they're sure to rise to world-class level." (Photo:(c) OSAKA F.C)