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World Cup Star Now Playing in the J. League (April 25, 2003)

Ahn Jung-hwan
Trends in Japan is featuring interviews with notable foreign residents of Japan. Our interviewee this time is South Korean soccer star Ahn Jung-hwan. While relatively new to Japan, Ahn shot to worldwide fame in 2002 thanks to his performance in the World Cup.

At the 2002 FIFA World Cup, which was co-hosted by Japan and South Korea, the South Korean team performed exceptionally well and finished in fourth place. One of the leading lights of the team was striker Ahn Jung-hwan, who scored key goals in matches against the United States and Italy. In addition to achieving hero status in his own country, Ahn became widely recognized in soccer circles around the world. Because he kisses his wedding ring after every goal he scores, Ahn has earned the nickname "the lord of the ring."

To Japan via Europe
Ahn came to Japan in September 2002, signing with Shimizu S-Pulse of the J. League Division One. He joined in the middle of the season and performed well, scoring three goals in 10 games. Though Japan and South Korea have long been described as countries that are "close together yet far apart," Ahn has few complaints about life in Japan: "It's comfortable. People look the same and feel the same, and almost nothing has bothered me."

In July 2000 Ahn was loaned to the Italian Serie A team Perugia by his club in South Korea, the Busan Daewoo Royals (now the Busan Icons), and he gained valuable experience playing in Italy for two years. After returning home in 2002 to play for the South Korean national team in the World Cup, he scored the golden goal in a match against the Italian side during the knockout round. In doing so, Ahn earned the wrath of Perugia President Luciano Gaucci. Ahn decided to transfer to another European club, but he was unable to conclude negotiations to his satisfaction. He temporarily shelved his goal of returning to Europe and came to Japan.

Ahn Jung-hwan

Most Famous South Korean in Japan
Ahn says he suffered a bit of an identity crisis while playing in Italy. He explains: "There were very few Asians, so there were times when I felt out of place. I don't know if it was because I am Asian or not, but there were a lot of inconveniences for me in Italy. Wherever you may be, though, you can't expect things to go as smoothly as they do in your home country."

Ahn's spectacular performance in the World Cup and his good looks have earned him many fans in Japan. When a magazine targeted at ethnic Koreans in Japan asked 100 Japanese to name a South Korean that they were familiar with, Ahn was the top choice, finishing ahead of even Kim Dae-jung, the South Korean president at the time and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Ahn has appeared on Japanese TV variety shows and even in a commercial with one of Japan's top actresses.

While Ahn may be popular, he is still viewed as a foreign player, a fact he is keenly aware of. "I'm a player on the team the same as everyone else. In order not to stand out, I make an effort to open myself to my teammates. Sometimes I joke around," he says with a mischievous grin. When he first joined Shimizu, there were rumors that the other players would not pass him the ball. We asked Ahn about this, and he laughed, saying, "That happens everywhere. The new guy has to be prepared for that to some extent, so it doesn't really bother me."

Hoping to Return to Europe
The things Ahn has found most difficult about living abroad, both in Italy and Japan, are the different languages and foods, and he felt this especially keenly in Italy. "Japanese food suits me. I like natto [fermented soybeans]. As far as the language goes, I can finally understand a bit of Japanese. I studied Italian quite hard. Learning to speak the language makes it easier to fit in with the rest of the team, so that is the task you have to address first."

Ahn married Lee Hye-won, a former Miss Korea, in 2001, and her presence has made life overseas much easier. When Ahn has dinner with his teammates, she comes along. "We support each other," he says.

Soccer is "something you should love," says Ahn, who has now played professionally in three countries, South Korea, Italy, and Japan. "In Italy and the rest of Europe, people love soccer with a passion. Japan, meanwhile, has great facilities and a player-friendly environment. Asian soccer is different from European soccer; it has a different style. Europe represents the highest level of soccer, so of course I want to go back."

Visiting Mt. Fuji
When the first South Korean soccer player decided to play in Japan 11 years ago, he endured criticism at home. According to Ahn, though, times have changed. He says, "That was long ago, and things are completely different now. What is important is the current relationship between the two nations."

After he came to Japan, the first place Ahn went sightseeing was Mt. Fuji. He says he was deeply moved by the experience.

Ahn Jung-hwan

Ahn Jung-hwan
Born in Kyoungki Province, South Korea, in 1976. Plays as a forward or attacking midfielder. Has played professionally in South Korea, Italy, and Japan. Was named MVP of the K-League in 1998 and starred as South Korea took fourth place in the 2002 World Cup. Currently plays for Shimizu S-Pulse.

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Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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