Napoli defender on travelling to his first Korea call-up in a fish truck, doing national service and watching the glory games of 2002
Kim Min-jae describes it as “one of the greatest moments in my life”, and it certainly made for an unusual scene, quite the entrance. The imposing South Korea centre-half has taken Serie A by storm since signing for Napoli in the summer and he intends to do likewise at the World Cup. But before he looks forward – South Korea kick off against Uruguay on Thursday – he wants to look back, to reflect on when it all started.
Kim had to do things the hard way. The boy from Tongyeong, a small city on Korea’s south coast, was thrilled to have received his first call-up to the South Korea under-17s team in 2012 but it meant a long journey to the Paju national football centre at the other end of the country.
Some of his teammates would travel the night before and others on the morning of the meet. It was more difficult for Kim. His parents worked around the clock to run a little sushi restaurant in Tongyeong and getting him up north on time was always going to be a challenge.
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Kim’s father had the solution, even if it was a slightly less than perfect one. He would combine dropping Kim off with a business trip to the East Sea and they would take the restaurant’s fish-transportation truck. It meant setting off in the middle of the night because the truck’s top speed was nothing to get excited about and the journey would last seven hours. But they made it.
“The truck was really, really big, about 15 to 20 tons,” Kim says. “It had a water tank where they could put fresh fish. I remember the day so clearly because the excitement was huge. I was only sorry that my dad then had to go to another city to drop off some fish.
“It was my first call-up to a national team, I was very young and I was a bit shy and ashamed to arrive like this. The other kids came in normal cars. But it was a very good story for me. I am close to my father and these are the kind of moments that have made me who I am.”
Kim can tell plenty of tales about his humble background. How, for example, he would wear hand-me-down boots from the older boys during his schooldays because his parents could not afford new ones. When he dropped out of Yonsei University in his second year to pursue a career in professional football – he had studied sport, leisure and physical education – he said it was because he was impatient to help his parents financially.
But the hardships and sacrifices have long since come to feel worthwhile. The 26-year-old has hit the big time at Napoli after his €19m move from Fenerbahce, making the club’s fans forget the sale of Kalidou Koulibaly to Chelsea.
Kim has not missed a beat during Napoli’s march into an eight-point lead at the top of Serie A and their progress to the Champions League last 16. He was named by EA Sports as the Serie A player of the month for September and given the same honour by the Italian Footballers’ Association for October. This is not supposed to happen to players with no previous experience of Europe’s elite divisions.
If Kim’s hero status in Tongyeong is well-established – there is a placard in the city that celebrates his status as a South Korea international – he now stands to become a poster boy for Asian football at the World Cup.
What marks Kim out is his hulking 6ft 3in frame. “It’s not difficult to recognise me on the street in Naples,” he says with a smile, as he considers how he sometimes has to stay at home to draw breath in the football-crazy city. His nickname of “the Monster” is well established, given to him by fans and media at the beginning of his career. “I really like it,” he says. “It sums up my positive attributes as a defender.”
There is also his pace and comfort on the ball, not to mention his determination and obsession with learning – from his international and domestic managers, Paulo Bento and Luciano Spalletti respectively; from the strikers he faces. “I’m looking forward to defending against Darwin Núñez in the Uruguay game,” Kim says. Cristiano Ronaldo is also in his sights. South Korea play Portugal in their final group game. Their other opponents are Ghana.
“Never stop dreaming, time won’t wait for you,” reads a tattoo on Kim’s left arm, which speaks volumes. He also has Carpe diem inked on to his chest. “Our main goal is to pass the group stage,” Kim says, and South Korea have done it twice, most memorably as the co-hosts in 2002 when they reached the semi-finals.
Kim was too young to take it in but part of his preparations for Qatar has involved rewatching old matches in which South Korea have upset the odds. One was the 1-0 win over Portugal in the final group game in 2002, when Park Ji-sung scored.
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“I really loved that,” Kim says. “You could see the desire in the players’ eyes. I was very impressed by how the right-sided defender, Song Chong-gug, played Luís Figo. Because I’m a defender that was the part I focused on.”
The conversation turns towards Son Heung-min, South Korea’s superstar and captain, who sparked a national panic after he fractured his eye socket playing for Tottenham at the start of the month. He underwent surgery and hopes to play in a protective face mask.
“Everyone was devastated by the news but we tried to put a positive spin on it when we heard he would be joining the squad,” Kim says. “He is a pivotal player that has to be in the team no matter what.”
Kim played with Son for South Korea’s under-23s at the Asian Games in 2018 – Son was an overage wildcard – and much of the coverage that followed their gold medal zeroed in on how the squad, and Son in particular, had secured an exemption from 21 months of military service. There was still a requirement for them to complete the basic four weeks’ soldier training.
“I will be joining the army next summer,” Kim says. “But now I’m doing some social contributions via Zoom. I give talks to young Korean footballers. I tell them how I felt at their age, how to get to where I am. I try to get my knowledge across as much as possible during a one-hour session. But most of the time it’s not enough so I do it two times for every player.”
Kim was tracked by a host of clubs in Europe after a stellar season with Beijing Guoan in 2019 and he eventually went to Fenerbahce in the summer of 2021. His Premier League suitors have included Spurs, Everton and Leicester. But everything felt right when Napoli called and the results so far have been spectacular. Title fever is brewing. Could Napoli be set to add to their triumphs of 1987 and 1990 when Diego Maradona was a deity in their colours?
“I’ve been told all about the Maradona story, how he brought the team to glory,” Kim says. “But what amazes me is how ‘Maradona 10’ shirts are still sold at the stadium and on every street corner. The fans are still wearing them. It just shows the levels of love and respect for him.”