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(Yonhap Interview) 'Mr. Woo' aims to make S. Korea freestyle football capital

All News 16:14 April 05, 2016

By Joo Kyung-don

SEOUL, April 5 (Yonhap) -- For more than two decades, Woo Hee-yong, better known as "Mr. Woo" overseas, has been the icon of freestyle football, a sport where a player performs various tricks with the ball using almost any part of the body.

Woo may have the fanciest resume among all South Koreans making a living in football. From setting the Guinness World Record for heading a ball for five hours, six minutes and 30 seconds to performing at major events like the FIFA World Cup, Woo has built his reputation as a ball juggling master. He was so famous that even Brazilian football star Ronaldinho asked for his autograph.

But Woo wants more.

At the age of 52, Woo can still juggle a ball, but these days, he is trying to juggle bigger things: turning his home country into the mecca of freestyle football and guide the discipline to become an official Olympic sport.

"I want to make South Korea the origin state of freestyle football and set its headquarters to be the world office," Woo said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency on Monday. "Tell me a reason why freestyle football can't be an Olympic sport. It is now played in some 100 countries."

Woo now puts more emphasis on his role as the chairman of the World Freestyle Football Federation (WFFF), the organization that he established here in 2011. Though working with celebrities and performing at major events would lift his popularity like in the past, Woo said that's not what he is interested in today. While young freestyle footballers have taken the glamorous scene of ball handling, Woo has turned his eyes to the below the surface. He wants to make the freestyle football sustainable.

"There is a reason why I have been doing freestyle for more than 20 years and building my legacy," he said. "I put all my life into this and there is a big trend of freestyle football in the world. I want to make a concrete platform for the sport."

Woo returned to South Korea in 2009 after living nearly 20 years in countries like Germany, the United States and Britain. After watching freestyle football spread around the world, thanks to the Internet and establishment of international competitions, Woo realized there should be a world headquarters for freestyle football in his homeland.

Woo wants the WFFF to function as the FIFA of freestyle football, systematically managing issues in freestyle football and bridging cooperation with other sports. He plans to recruit footballers like Ronaldinho and Wayne Rooney to the WFFF after they hang up their boots.

"I, freestyle football legend Mr. Woo, am a South Korean and why not have the headquarters in my country?," he said. "I also want to keep the last word from my father who was a Korean War veteran. He told me to devote myself to country."

Woo, who once was a professional footballer in a low-tier German league, said that hosting the world championship in Seoul regularly will help South Korea become the center of freestyle football. There has been an international freestyle football competition sponsored by Red Bull, which he participated as a judge, but Woo wants to have a separate competition made in South Korea.

After years of preparation, Woo said that the inaugural international tournament from the WFFF will take place in this September. He added that the winner of the event will get prize money of at least 50 million won (US$ 43,300) and the federation is on its way to get more sponsors and broadcasting deals.

"I will invite world-class artists from at least 32 countries and expect to draw hundreds of contestants" he said. "Those who are not invited can also compete through qualifiers, which I plan to have over three days before the final stage begins."

Woo, who has featured as a judge in freestyle football competitions around the world, said that there is a set of rules and standards when it comes to evaluating the performance of freestyle footballers. His philosophy for freestyle football is that it should be rooted in football. Using hands or too many B-boy-like moves are not really his style.

"You have to give the impression that this is part of football technique," he said. "It needs to have creativity, artistic beauty and technical quality. But of course, it should not be repetitive."

Woo claims freestyle football can improve players' skills on the pitch by upgrading their "sense of the ball." He said that top-class footballers have this sense which enables them to display delicate touches and ball control in the match.

"If you look at (Lionel) Messi, his sense of the ball is immense and so is Neymar's," he said of the two FC Barcelona stars. "As Ronaldinho displayed while he was with FC Barcelona, world class players invest time to maintain their sense of the ball."

Among South Koreans, Woo said former Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-sung displayed good skills that can be also seen from freestyle football. Woo claimed Park showed "an explosive sense" when it is most needed, citing his goal against Portugal at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

"Park had an exceptional sense of the ball although he looked like an average football player when it comes to football techniques," Woo said. "If you look at his goal against Portugal at the 2002 World Cup, not many footballers can score like that."

Woo said he began freestyle football for survival. After suffering from a serious injury during high school, he knew becoming a professional footballer would be difficult, but couldn't give up his passion for football, which is why he settled in freestyle.

To this date, Woo said he has received more than 30 honorary ambassador certificates from sports teams, organizations, companies and governments. While some people criticize that he loves publicity, Woo defends that it was all for the sake of freestyle football, not for his personal fame. His goal was to make a solid environment for other freestyle football artists, so that they can make their living just by playing the sport.

"The problem is whether we can make this sport popular enough and help freestyle footballers make their living without having financial concerns," he said. "I want to make this industry bigger, so that many more people can enjoy and learn freestyle football."


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