When I was growing up, playing football in Coventry in the 1970s, no one passed to you if you were Asian. If you played at all, it was in defense (and this at an age when the fatties and four-eyed, the thickos, spackers and benders were stuck at the back); more often than not you were the sub (unused).
This would have been grim for any kid, but it was especially so since one of my class mates was a fellow called Jamie Hill, son of Jimmy Hill, the iconic TV football pundit. Hill (snr) is something of an ironic taste now, his appeal a little retro, but back in the 1970s he was the straight face of BBC football, the presenter of its flagship program Match of the Day, the only place to regularly see football (and just highlights at that) on British TV – which was the only place to see it at all, if your parents, like mine, thought you’d be in danger going to see games in person because of the colour of your skin.
Every Saturday night of the season at 10pm, the jaunty fanfare of the theme music would start up over a title sequence that included, among other things, a shot of thousands of school kids in a stadium holding up cards to make a giant picture of Jimmy’s face (fully half of which appeared to consist of a chin, as sharp and pronounced as most people’s elbows, which in later years Jimmy was to highlight with a series of increasingly reckless bow-ties). Match of the Day, if you need further proof of its seminal place in my life, was the first program I was allowed to stay up late to watch. While most kids heard John Motson reciting their inner commentary, in my case it was always Jimmy’s voice describing the action, perhaps because from the touchline or the middle distance of defense I felt less in the midst of the action than observing it from the cool confines of the studio. Jimmy Hill, massive chin and all, quite simply loomed over my weekends like one of those huge stone heads on Easter Island.
I didn’t know Jamie half as well. We weren’t in the same classes and when I saw him in the corridors, or on the football pitch, he seemed cool and aloof. He must have had friends, but my sense is that most of us gave him a respectfully wide birth, as if we were at school with one of the Royal princes. Still, his mere presence among us left open the thrilling possibility that one day his father might appear, picking him up at four o’clock, attending a sports day, leaning over the fence watching us play football. A contract, an apprenticeship, a word to the right scout, an invitation to the studio at the least, couldn’t be far behind, we thought. But not if no one ever passed you the ball, not if you were stuck in defense with the odds and sods, or worse, on the touchline carrying a linesman’s flag (we all knew how Jimmy felt about linesmen).
My problem was that if you didn’t look like a footballer – British, circa 1975 – you couldn’t be one. Half of the pleasure of playing football was the pleasure of pretend, of make believe. Kids didn’t play football as much as they played Keegan or Toshack, Bremner or Lorimer, Souness or Rush, in their own breathless commentary. The roles were as much acting as sporting. Pulling on a strip was like tying a towel round your neck and pretending to be Superman. But it was easier to believe you could fly than to suspend disbelief and be Kevin Keegan if you looked Asian. And my mother’s sporadic Olympic enthusiasm for Chinese table-tennis players, or Malaysian badminton medalists, wasn’t much of a consolation.
There were no Asian players in the English leagues throughout my childhood – black players were still a novelty (patronized at best, showered with bananas at worst) and foreign imports were rare (Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa arrived at Spurs only in 1978). Outside of European competitions, the only place to see foreign players, and in particular the only place to see non-white players, was the World Cup, and between 1966 – when the North Koreans knocked Italy out at the group stage, and lead Portugal 3-0 in the quarter-final before Eusebio scored four in reply – and 1986, when South Korea went to Mexico, no Asian team qualified for the World Cup finals. Since I was still in my mother’s womb in the summer of 66, I was almost twenty before I – or anyone of my generation growing up in England – saw an Asian kick a ball in anger.
It’s one of the queasy realities of World Cups, that at some point the discussion of national teams always begins to turn into a discussion of national or ethnic stereotypes. Germans are efficient, Italians operatic, the French cultured, Spaniards temperamental, Brazilians flamboyant, and the English…(bull)dogged. Many reasons could be advanced for this phenomena. Its roots might lie in the colonial past which is so responsible for making football the world game. Perhaps, too, there’s a sense that a football team – more than any of the individual competitors in say Olympic sports – can somehow embody a national character. But I’d like to suggest that the real culprit for this kind of thinking is… Jimmy Hill. Jimmy, after all, not only anchored BBC World Cup coverage for a decade, and sat on panels of experts for three times as long, he’s also widely credited with inventing the football panel format. And it’s the panel, of course – that hotbed of mispronunciation and half-truth offered as generality – that transforms one man’s opinion of a nation or people, into received wisdom. Yet, while stereotypes are reductive, inaccurate, patronizing, implicitly self-regarding, perhaps the one thing worse than being stereotyped is not being stereotyped. Stereotypes as much as they help others to see us, may also allow us to see ourselves. We define ourselves by our own stereotypes, in opposition to those we hold of others, and perhaps those national images that endure longest, endure in part because they’re shared by the stereotypers and the stereotyped. Regardless of how accurately or narrowly national characters are revealed in World Cups, those events are how many of us the world over first form impressions of other nations. We recognize each other by our footballers; in many cases, they’re the first or only people from that country we know. So what does it say when the Asian stereotype is…you don’t play football very well.
I was at University in Manchester by 1986, starting to follow United’s fortunes seriously – they weren’t yet the force that would sweep all before them in the Premiership, but the team had the compelling quality of a star-studded soap opera – though also just beginning to want to be Ted Hughes rather than Mark Hughes. The 1986 World Cup finals are remembered now for Maradona, and especially his goals against England in the quarterfinals, the one magical, the other sleight of hand, but it’s South Korea’s first round game against then holders Italy that stays with me.
I was living alone, then, my room-mate having gone home for the summer, spending my days working at the Joint Matriculation Board, checking the marking of O and A Level exams. It was stultifying work – some lucky souls got to read essays, or look at the painting and drawing from art exams, but I was stuck verifying the scoring of multiple choice science exams. We were in essence double-checking the computers that graded the exams, looking for those that scored improbably low, lower than they should have even if they’d guessed every answer, which could be a sign that a student had filled out the grid incorrectly, in ink, say, rather than HB pencil. I always looked those files up with the exaggerated hope – born of my own boredom – of rescuing some poor kid’s grade, but more often than not these checks only revealed the dismayingly dogged ignorance of candidates who were both obtuse and unlucky.
The World Cup that year was – not too surprisingly – the highlight of my summer (the England squad that year, I recall reading with a certain relief, boasted fewer than a dozen O Levels between them), and I watched as many matches as I could: England games at the flat of my best friend and his girlfriend; the rest alone, on the tiny black and white TV back at my railroad apartment (this being before the advent of a big screen TV in every pub).
Korea started poorly against the eventual champions, Argentina, 2-0 down within twenty minutes, 3-0 down a minute after half-time, losing eventually 3-1, and I remember having the sinking feeling that thiswas why I’d never seen an Asian team in the finals. Back in the studio, I seem to recall, Jimmy helpfully pointing out that this was actually an improvement on S. Korea’s only prior appearance in the Finals, in1954, in Switzerland, when they’d lost 9-0 and 7-0 to Puskas’ Hungary and Turkey respectively. Those were the kind of improbable scores that I’d been trained to be suspicious of at work, but in fact they were quite right (though it’s worth noting that the South Koreans of ‘54 played their first game ten hours after getting off the plane, and that getting to the Finals at all was a small triumph for them. To qualify they had to beat Japan – their former occupiers – twice, on Japanese soil, after the Korean government refused to allow the Japanese team to enter Korea.)
The Argentina game had been so predictable and almost immediately no contest, that when the Bulgarians scored within ten minutes of the start of S. Korea’s next match, it seemed as if history was in danger of repeating itself. And that, I swear, is when I recall someone – not Jimmy or Motty, this wasn’t a marquee game, it must have been covered by the second string commentary team – chuckle dryly: “They eat underdogs, don’t they?”
In retrospect, I can barely believe I heard it myself, half hope my memory’s faulty, that I’ve conflated the moment with another, a crack overheard later in a pub, maybe. And yet, whenever I heard it, whoever said it, it’s lodged in my mind at that moment, when the Korean team seemed on the verge of crumbling. But then, somehow, almost as if they’d heard the line themselves, they simply refused to, throwing themselves around the pitch in a flailing blur of energy that would have looked silly – charging after hopeless long balls, diving into tackles, their thick black mops of hair flopping with effort – if it hadn’t seemed so desperate.
That was the game that caught my imagination. I’m not Korean, of course, had never been to Korea then or since, but I had that hair-cut and more importantly that desperation. It ended 1-1, the equalizer the kind of goal that seems forced over the line by sheer will-power, ensuring that S. Korea entered the next game, the one against Italy, with at least the mathematical chance of advancing to the quarter finals if they won.
They didn’t, of course, but after shipping yet another early goal (what was their manager telling them in his team talk?), they stiffened again, clung on and equalized mid-way through the second half. For about ten teetering minutes it was just possible to imagine them winning, and then Alessandro Altobelli made it 2-1 and a little later an own goal sealed it, though the Koreans still clawed back a late goal and played out a furious but futile last few minutes. A defeat then, but a gallant one, a defiant one, the kind from which stereotypes spring.
“Plucky,” someone on the panel said afterwards. “Never say die,” another expert offered. “They’ll be back,” a third opined, an uncharacteristically accurate prophesy, since S. Korea has appeared in each finals since, most recently taking their revenge on Italy en route to a semi-final appearance in 2002. But such then unimaginable successes, (including the signing of a Korean, Park Ji-Sung by United) haven’t overshadowed that game in Mexico.
What remains most vivid in my mind is that the scorer of the first Korean goal was Choi Soon Ho, and that somewhere in the coverage, the commentator or someone back in the studio got his name confused in a typical and trivial error, and called him Ho, instead of by his family name, Choi. I can’t be sure who it was, but in my memory, of course, it’s Jimmy Hill, Jimmy Hill saying my name, albeit by mistake, Jimmy Hill saying, “The lad Ho looks useful, the boy Ho can play.” I can see him now, nodding and smiling, his huge chin seemingly gift wrapped in one of those bright bow-ties.