On a warm sunny late October day, it was time for my second football match for FC Yonsei, the university’s football team. After a successful debut against Korea University at the end of September (a victory and three goals), it was time for a new challenge, a game at and against the Korea Military Academy.
We gathered at the main gate of the university early in the afternoon, thinking it was going to be a similar game to the previous one, where we used public transport to get to the location. Until a small bus with a big Korea Military Academy logo stoped right in front of us. Two soldiers got out, greeted us, and opened the door for us to get in. The bus was just big enough to fit 16. With American radio on full volume, the soldiers closed the doors and drove us to the Academy. After about an hour of seeing the same sort of buildings and streets surrounded by the mountains of Seoul, we arrived at a highly secured and censored palace-looking gate. The entrance was blocked by metal barricades and heavy armed soldiers. One of the players in the bus pointed at a tower in the distance and told me its a watchtower to look over their unpredictable neighbours, the North Koreans. It was clear that this wasn’t just any match, but perhaps THE match. From where the bus stopped in front of the gate, we were escorted by two soldiers to the pitch, a dry, yellow looking, unmaintained grass field. As if we were playing at some Czech amateur football team in the suburbs of Prague. Definitely not the pitch I had expected from Korea’s biggest military academy. And to top it off, the referee and the linesmen were from the home team, just like football games in Prague, where a player from the home team who was clearly offside would not be noticed, or where a player from the away team was clearly onside would be flagged for offside. Guess its the same everywhere you play, because it wasn’t any different in Seoul.
Korea Military Academy (KMA) is the foremost South Korean institution for the education and training of officer cadets for the Republic of Korea Army. In other words, some of the country’s strongest, fittest, most disciplined and most competitive men can be found here, in the North-Eastern outskirts of Seoul. And it proved to me very accurate during the game. After 90 minutes of competitive and aggressive football we were 0-3, and convinced that was the end of the game, because those are the rules. We turned out to be wrong, there was another 45 minutes to go. Why? Just to show us how fit and strong they are I guess, or perhaps because a 2-0 victory for them wasn’t good enough. And so the game continued, as the sun was about to set. As usual, players are physically tired after a 90 minute game, and so were were. Not the Military Academy, they were as fit and energetic after 90 minutes as they were at the start of the game. Resulting in an eventual and final defeat of 4-0.
Regardless, the experience was unbelievable. Playing amongst and against some of the strongest men of the country was quite something. From the moment they started training, throughout the entire game, and till the moment we left their pitch, they showed incredible discipline. By the way they greeted us, thanked us and walked us to the showers, it was so incredibly professional and persistent. After the game we were all rewarded with a gift from the Military Academy and a group picture, one for the memories. This was surely an experience to cherish and not forget.
Military service in South Korea is mandatory and each male must complete two years of service before the age of 35. Every male individual is forced to do it, and anyone who attempts to escape it will be jailed. The service is mandatory mainly because of their relationship with North Korea. After things intensified after the Korean War, there was a need for an active force for the South Koreans, so the military can always be ready and prepared. Some players at FC Yonsei have already served for two years, and there is a clear distinction visible between those who have and those who still have to, in terms of fitness, physical appearance, discipline and mentality. In that sense, you could say the South Korean army is a bit brainwashed too. Some explained that they are trained to hate the North, whereas those that have not served yet, show no strong abhorrence towards their only neighbouring country.
Interesting to get a view of the Korean Military Academy, a better picture of those who defend the country from one of the strongest and most unpredictable nations on this planet, and to play a competitive game of football again!