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.