an inspiring true stories

Football Coach Kim Shin-hwan Hailed as ‘East Timor’s Guus Hiddink’
Huh Mun-myung

Staff Reporter
The Dong-a Ilbo

In October 2001, landing on the East Timorese soil for the first time, Kim Shin-hwan was consumed with feelings of greed, reproach, resentment and despair. The then 45-year-old South Korean man, whose business had failed and marriage had ended up in a divorce, came all the way down to the impoverished Southeast Asian country to flee his painful past, eagerly looking for new business opportunities.

He failed to find any way to make money but witnessed dire poverty. In comparison with their miserable living conditions, the despair and wretchedness he felt for himself seemed rather like luxury. He wanted to offer a helping hand, but the only thing he had was his experience in professional football.

Kim has now been coaching the East Timorese children’s football squad for almost a decade. Hailed as “Hiddink of East Timor” by the locals, Kim received the country’s national medals of honor in 2004 and 2005. He says East Timor has saved him and returned happiness to his life.

Kim’s squad cruised to victory in the 2004 Rivelino Cup international youth football tournament held in Hiroshima, Japan, to the surprise of many people around the world, who had barely heard of the country. While East Timor is ranked 204th by the 208-member FIFA, its junior team is one of the strongest 16 teams to qualify for the Asian Football Confederation’s youth championship round in October this year.

“A Barefoot Dream,” a film depicting Kim and his youth team, is to be released in some 350 movie theaters nationwide in Korea on June 24. Directed by Kim Tae-kyun, the movie was also screened at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. The global organization’s peacekeeping force is currently stationed in East Timor.

In time for the movie premiere, the coach paid a visit to his homeland. The following interview with Kim took place on June 17. He had a dark tanned face with a big smile, exuding positive energy to people around him. It was hard to believe that he was a man once considered a loser.

“The most important lesson I learned from East Timor is that happiness is created when I am living for other people, not for my selfish interest,” he said. The guy who used to complain about what he could not possess and believed that his life was miserable now says that he is rich in heart despite his modest bank account.

His close tie with East Timor dates back to 1997 when he befriended with Paolo, an East Timorese. While Kim was involved in timber business in Kalimantan, Indonesia, Paolo was seeking a hideaway as he was engaged in East Timor’s separatist movement against Indonesia. They shared their feelings of homesickness and soon became friends. Then, one day Paolo was caught by the police and Kim lost contact with him. Kim’s business was also going downhill and he struggled to keep his business barely afloat. Despite his hard work, he had to return to Korea without any financial success.

News of East Timor’s independence came in 2002, while Kim was idly wasting time in Korea after his business failure in Indonesia. It reminded him of his friend Paolo. An urge to run away from Korea combined with the despair and resentment he felt, compelling him to go back to East Timor to make yet another attempt for a breakthrough.

“The poverty was extreme, beyond imagination. Downtown buildings were left collapsed, probably by bombshells during the past civil strife, and the East Timorese people looked as if they had lost sense of life and death, completely devoid of any will to life,” Kim recalled. “I felt almost guilty for my thought of making money from such people,” he added. While he asked around to find out the whereabouts of Paolo, Kim learned that his friend had been tortured to death. No business seemed viable there and, of course, there would be no reunion with a friend.

A day before a trip back to Korea, he went out of his hotel to a nearby playground just to jog around. It was that very day when his life changed. On the ground scarcely covered with grass, a group of East Timorese kids and adults were playing football. Even though they were barefoot and playing with ruptured soccer balls, they looked serious and their eyes shined with joyful enthusiasm. For the first time Kim saw the East Timorese faces with radiant smiles. He was astonished at the scene. “For me, football was just a means for making money and, later on, the cause of my deep regret and sorrow. I had not realized that football can bring about such pure delight among people,” he said.

Kim’s football career blossomed when he was a teenager. While in middle school he was selected to represent South Chungcheong Province. He continued to play among the top footballers in the renowned Hanyang Industrial High School. Even though he could not continue through to college, he instead played for such top-rated professional teams as the Navy and Hyundai Motors football squads until the age 30. With the past glories flashing across his mind, he ran into the center field.
The sudden appearance of a foreigner in the playground alarmed the locals but their wonder soon turned into admiration when Kim began dribbling across the field. People began clapping their hands and surrounding him to have a closer look at the excellent foreign footballer. Fortunately, Kim was able to communicate with them in Indonesian. When he introduced himself as a former football player from South Korea, roars of cheers burst out in awe as people there were well aware of the South Korean national football team that made through the semifinal in the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

After a brief stay in Korea, he returned to East Timor in November 2002. He opened a sportswear and equipment store in the capital city of Dili in a bid to make a living and establish contacts with potential players. He closed the shop in six months, however, as he could not make ends meet due to mounting losses from credit sales. He gave up the business and made up his mind to focus efforts on educating children who had come to his shop. Children swarmed from all around the island country as they heard rumors about a Korean football coach giving away football clothes and shoes to children. From among them he picked 40 to form a squad.

His unconditional kindness was not easily understood. Some accused him of abusing children for money. Moreover, it was even more difficult to change the mindset of the young players. It seemed to him that colonial rule over almost 500 years had destroyed the self-confidence and willpower of people. In the unending war and poverty children were hardly taught any personal hygiene habits and they lacked proper education for good manners.

Before embarking on football coaching, Kim taught them to exchange greetings with courtesy and to brush their teeth cleanly. The primary aim of his football teaching was not to develop technique but to build up self-confidence. Encouraging the kids to have a vision of a brighter future for their newborn country, Kim often talked about the modern history of Korea, stories about its brilliant economic development after the Korean War to its victories in the 2002 FIFA World Cup. It was then in East Timor that he felt any pride in his homeland for the first time in his life.

Two years of his hard work with the East Timorese children bore fruit with their victory on March 27, 2004, in the Rivelino Cup as the team defeated the strongest Japanese squad 4-2. (Roberto Rivelino, a legendary Brazilian football player, launched the annual competition in 1974 in order to nurture young football talent in Asia. Youth teams representing 32 Asian countries participate in the tournament every March in Hiroshima.)

The sensational triumph made the Korean coach a national hero for East Timor. Since its liberation the country had its first car parade from the airport to the downtown to extend a heartfelt welcome to the returning football squad. The event changed the children, their parents and friends. Discarding their doubts, jealousy and fear toward the stranger, the East Timorese opened their hearts wide to Kim and embraced him as part of their family.

An additional victory in the Rivelino Cup the following year brought worldwide attention to the coach. He even received a job offer to work for a Singaporean team for a big compensation package. “I declined the offer without hesitation. I was a man who did not know what hope was. The East Timorese children created hope in me. When you don’t have a hope, you are nothing. I couldn’t leave the kids who gave me hope,” he said.

Working without pay, the coach makes a living with donations from South Korea. Even though his possessions are few, he says that thinking of his young footballers is enough to make him happy. He refers to the children as “all my sons.” Tears welled up in his eyes when he talked about children who had to give up playing football due to their weak physique or strength.

“I am neither a philosopher nor a man of great knowledge. I do not have anything to feel proud of myself. But what I learned from my experiences in East Timor is that ‘living a life with a purpose’ is the most important thing,” he said. According to Kim, becoming a professional football player is the greatest dream for young East Timorese. “Football is one of a few means to success in the country where the unemployment rate stands at a whopping 50 percent,” he said. For some people in the world, football means much more than just a sport, indeed.

“Our body is for jumping and shouting.
An existence made not for killing but for playing and loving.
A defeat, if having tried hard enough to win, is as beautiful as a triumph.
Sweat from painstaking efforts does not end in vain.
Here in the green field where justice is vitally alive,
Bury the moment’s delight and sorrow.”
(From the poem “Justice Exists Only in the Football Field” by Choi Young-mi)
[June 21, 2010]