[SOUTH KOREA] Yeo Min Ji and her teammates on South Korea's 2010 under-17 national team were 9 years old in 2002 when they watched the World Cup being held in South Korea and Japan. Eight years later, they captured South Korea's first world championship, defeating Japan on penalty kicks in Sunday's Under-17 Women's World Cup final after their game ended, 3-3.
In women's golf, half of the top 10 players are South Korean women. When they were kids, they watched Se Ri Pak's play on TV. Now in 2010, Yeo and the World Cup kids achieved similar heights.
The players whose interest in soccer was sparked by the 2002 World Cup were put on the fast track with a small but intense soccer program and dazzled the world with their skills in Trinidad & Tobago. Their tenacity, can-do spirit and step-by-step training helped them go all the way.
Like many middle-school South Korean girls, Yeo Min Ji was expected by her parents to take up golf. At that time Pak was becoming famous, so it was natural that Min Ji's parents planned to take her to a golf practice lounge. But she had other ideas.
Since Min Ji's brother, Sangho, was playing soccer, her mom went out to buy soccer shoes for him. Min Ji pestered her mom to buy her soccer shoes as well and that day she started play with a soccer ball.
By 14, she was playing on the under-19 national team, and according to head coach Young Ki Lee, even the older players had to learn from Min Ji's speed, dribbling and passing skills.
The same year, Min Ji received Rookie of the Year award from the Daily Sports. As part of the award, she went to England to meet Park Ji Sung, who plays at Manchester United and visited the Old Trafford Stadium.
Yeo led the Under-17 Women's World Cup with eight goals in six games and also won the adidas Golden Ball as the tournament MVP.
The success of the South Korean U-17s follows the country's third-place finish at this summer's Under-20 Women's World Cup in Germany.
The Korea Football Association paid bonuses totaling $247,000 to the U-20 players. Star Ji So Yun (who also scored eight goals in six games) and other 14 players got bonuses of $10,000 and the other seven players got $6,000 each.
For the U-17 girls, the rewards will be a lot higher. But instead of cash, they will be in the form of college scholarships.
Athletes like figure skater Kim Yu Na, Park Ji Sung and Pak Se Ri are immensely popular in Korea and have huge contracts to make TV commercials. Offers should come Yeo's way when she returns from Trinidad.
But soccer opportunities for women are still not widespread in South Korea like in the United States and many European countries.
Once there were 24 elementary school girls soccer teams in Korea. After the government cut its subsidy, that number was reduced to 18 teams. Between middle schools and high schools, there are about 50 teams and a total of about 1,000 players competing in South Korean girls soccer.
Only six Korean colleges have women’s soccer, while the WK League -- the women's league launched in 2009 -- has six clubs.
Only the top players like Yeo and Ji -- "Ji Messi" -- are enjoying the spotlight. More widespread support is needed to build upon Korea's success.