For a long time in South Korea, there was a stereotype that football was too competitive for women. Girls were often told to behave modestly and physical education teachers would give footballs to boys and dodge balls to girls without hesitation or question.
Jung Ji-hyun was one of two girls who played football at her elementary school, where some 400 students attended. Her love for the sport had started by kicking a football with boys in her neighborhood.
While the other girl had to stop playing due to the opposition of her parents, Jung continued thanks to her relatively less strict parents and in college she joined a club, though it barely had enough people to play.
“Without many women playing, it was difficult to find teams to compete with,” Jung, 28, told CNN Sport. “The discontent that I couldn’t enjoy women’s football in Korea as I wish started growing.”
Jung was working for a sports marketing company when she came across London-based creative football collective Romance FC.
“The fact that they make content combining football and culture really attracted me,” Jung said of Romance FC, a women’s amateur team that aims to create opportunities for players both on and off the pitch.
Jung, based on her experience of bouncing around community clubs, said most Koreans only wanted to watch or play, but she wanted to be creative too. Disappointed that a team like Romance FC did not exist in South Korea, she was determined: “If we don’t have one, I thought, ‘I’ll make one!’”
In 2019, Jung and her football-playing friends founded an amateur team, Nutty FC, in the hope of expanding the interest in the women’s game in South Korea.
“‘Nutty’ has an ambiguous meaning. It stands for our desire to be eccentric, refusing to be ordinary,” Jung said. “And C from ‘FC’ stands for Creatives, not Club.”
Other than playing games at least once a week, Nutty FC engages in creative works, including designing uniforms, exhibiting their work and creating reels to try to make women’s football go viral in a country that loves Tottenham star Son Heung-min and the rest of the men’s national team, but not much else.
Nutty FC has grown over the years and now boasts members of various backgrounds. But they all have the same ambition: to change the women’s football scene in the country.
Women choosing to wear boots
In June 2021, Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS) launched a reality TV show, ‘Kick a Ball,’ where female TV personalities, including actors, models, singers and comedians, played football under the coaching of 2002 World Cup heroes like Lee Young-pyo.
The show’s unique concept, of female beginners improving their skills, captured the imagination, bringing in a peak audience rate of 9.5% in December 2021, according to Nielson Korea.
But the impact was bigger than just pure entertainment.
Plab Football, a social sports platform that organizes its users to play futsal – a game similar to five-a-side football – without the hassle of hunting for players, said it experienced a 45.2% increase in female users in July 2021 from the previous month, when ‘Kick a Ball’ first aired.
The platform ranks its users into five different levels according to their skills, with level five indicating a professional and level one a beginner. Data from the app shows that more than 50% of the total 11,074 female users are ranked level two or lower.
“I can feel the interest in women’s football has explosively increased thanks to ‘Kick a Ball,’” Jung said.
When Nutty FC opened recruitment in March 2022, the number of applicants almost doubled from 2020, and the majority of them said the show had inspired them, according to Jung.
Jung explained that her friends, who had initially refused to join Nutty FC because “they don’t know how to play,” were now forming their own teams consisting of members who were also new to the sport.
“It’s very encouraging that the number of beginner-level teams have grown,” she said.
While the number of ordinary women engaging in the game is growing, Jung said that there was more to be done for women’s football in Korea.
Embracing and developing women’s football
Ji So-yun, the first South Korean to play in Women’s Super League (WSL) in England, has returned to her homeland to play for Suwon FC Women after lifting 12 trophies with Chelsea FC Women.
At her press conference in May, the 31-year-old midfielder pointed out that women’s football in South Korea is still behind that of European countries, where professional women’s teams are run with the men’s team under one club.
“I was attracted to Suwon FC because that’s the first domestic club to operate both a men’s and women’s team,” Ji explained.
“In England, clubs promote men’s and women’s teams together. I think that’s how the women’s team gained a lot of supporters.”
Ji also mentioned the inconvenient kickoff time of South Korea’s semi-professional WK League, which has been readjusted since June from 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. local time to 7p.m. local on weekdays. The Korea Women’s Football Federation (KWFF) cited “increased interest in women’s football” and to allow for “easier match viewing.”
According to the KWFF, the WK League had an average of 353 spectators per game in 2019, far lower than Europe’s women’s leagues.
England’s Women’s Super League (WSL) had an average of 1,931 spectators per game in the 2021/22 season, and Barcelona Femení, the Spanish giant’s women’s side, set a women’s football attendance world record with 91,648 fans turning up to see its Champions League semifinal against Wolfsburg in April 2022.
To fill the stands, Nutty FC’s Jung suggested that WK League teams should charge for tickets.
Currently, Suwon FC is the only team among the eight-team league that charges fans – 5,000 KRW ($3.81) for adults and 1,000 KRW ($0.76) for children – even this is one-third the price of a men’s ticket.
“The league needs revenue to improve, and it needs to improve to draw fans. But it’s a regret that this is not happening,” Jung explained.
Ji also thought that the WK League needed more sponsorship, pointing to WSL’s “landmark” broadcast deal made last year with Sky Sports and the BBC.
“They’ve [BBC & Sky] been broadcasting more games this year, leading to an increase in sponsorships, including many [sponsors] that want the women’s team as the main [investment],” she said in her press conference. “I hope that also happens in Korea.”
Ji was also confident that she would make the league more competitive, consequently attracting more spectators. “I’m here to change the dynamics,” she said.
“We, amateur players, will continue making efforts from behind the scenes,” Jung told CNN. “I want to change perceptions, that women playing football becomes as obvious as men playing.”