[PORTRAIT] South Korea has been one of the surprises at the Under-20 Women's World Cup in Germany with one of the tournament's most exciting teams led by Ji So Yun, dubbed "Ji Messi," for her resemblance to Lionel Messi.
Ji has accomplished what the Argentine star couldn't do the World Cup. She's not only scored, she's scored in bunches.
With six goals heading into Thursday's semifinals against Germany, Ji is only one behind German Alexandra Popp for the tournament scoring lead and is a candidate to succeed U.S. star Sydney Leroux as the tournament's MVP.
Women's soccer received a boost when South Korea co-hosted the 2002 (men's) World Cup, attracting more girls to the game, but it still faces many social and structural hurdles in South Korea. Few schools sponsor women's soccer, and the number of registered female players in Korea is less than 1,500.
But Ji's success shows what is possible. She started out on a boys team as a second grader in Seoul and overcame hardship -- she grew up on welfare, raised by her single mother suffering from cancer -- to attend Hanyang Women's College.
Ji scored two goals in 2008 when South Korea reached the quarterfinals of the inaugural Under-17 Women's World Cup and led South Korea to the knockout phase of the Under-20 Women's World Cup for the first time.
Ji had a hat trick against Switzerland (4-0) and two goals against Ghana (4-2) and sat out the first half of the 1-0 loss to the United States since the South Koreans had already qualified for the quarterfinals, where she scored a brilliant free kick in South Korea's 3-1 win over Mexico.
The women’s WK-League was launched last year with six teams -- the same number of Korean colleges that sponsor women's soccer -- but Ji may move abroad.
“A few American and German clubs have shown their interests in her," Lee Sang Yeop, her coach at Hanyang Women’s College, told the Korea Herald. " Ji wants to play in an advanced league and I’m willing to help her.”