When South Korea started the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand with a 2-0 defeat by Colombia, Casey Phair made football history. When she came on as a substitute in the 78th minute, she became the youngest-ever World Cup player at the age of 16 years and 26 days – and also the first South Korean World Cup player to have American roots.
The daughter of an American father and a South Korean mother, Phair was born and raised in the United States. She was included in the 23-man South Korea national team squad named by national team coach Colin Bell on July 5 for the tournament. South Korea also meets Morocco and Germany in Group H.
Bell: “Still a kid”
“To me she is still a child and it is my duty to protect her so that she can develop and reach her full potential,” says Bell. “She has fitted in very well with the team. She’s in it because she deserves it.”
Phair was delighted to be able to represent her mother’s home country. “I’m really proud and honored to have this opportunity,” she says. “And I’m ready and want to do anything to help the country.”
Turning point before the 2018 Olympics
Phair’s nomination is exceptional given that South Korea’s national team officials have rarely looked to talent based in other parts of the world. “The diaspora has long been underestimated by many countries and even completely ignored by some,” Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School in Paris, told DW.
In the recent past, however, there had been a (necessary) change. Because after South Korea received the right to host the 2018 Winter Olympics and was thus automatically qualified for all competitions, sports officials realized that the country was lacking athletes in several disciplines.
One of the best examples of this was the sport of ice hockey, where 19 people of Korean descent were granted citizenship as part of a naturalization program, including Danielle Im, who left her hometown of Toronto to play for the women’s team. Similar to Chicago native Tyler Bricker, who is now stepping onto the ice for the men’s team.
Naturalized for ice hockey
Unlike ice hockey, however, soccer in South Korea is anything but a fringe sport. The country can look back on decades of football history. For example, the men’s national team has qualified for the last ten world championships. Only Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Germany have a longer, uninterrupted streak.
While Japan and China have already selected foreign-born soccer players, Phair’s nomination to the women’s national team is a first for South Korea and could also have political benefits.
It is hoped that Phair’s nomination, especially if she plays well at the tournament, could help improve relations between South Koreans and their compatriots living abroad. “There is clearly a divide between the Koreans in South Korea and the Korean Americans in the US,” Steve Han, a South Korean football journalist, told DW.
Football as a means of approach
Han notes that the fact that she’s female might help in Phair’s acceptance. The reason: The South Koreans have a very high opinion of the level of women’s football in America.
“Maybe this summer’s Women’s World Cup is too early for that. But if Casey can one day play a vital role for South Korea in women’s football, there is hope that the sport can actually help bridge the gap between the two communities,” Han said.
Low birth rate
South Korea continues to be an extremely homogeneous society, with fewer than five percent of the approximately 51 million inhabitants identifying themselves as non-Koreans. And that ties into what has been called the country’s biggest problem.
South Korea has the world’s lowest fertility rate at just 0.78 babies per woman, well below what is needed to maintain the population. The Seoul government has spent around EUR 190 billion in efforts to reverse the decline – albeit with little success.
“The problem of the low birth rate is an important national issue,” President Yoon Suk Yeol said in March this year, adding that Korea must adopt an “emergency mentality” to solve the problem.
Changing a national mentality
One obvious possible solution is immigration, which other countries are using to ease the burden on aging populations. But South Korea has never welcomed immigration. Even the relatively small number of Yemeni and Afghan refugees who arrived in the country between 2018 and 2022 has sparked controversy.
Some hope that Phair’s participation in the World Cup this summer will be an important first step in changing this attitude among the population. “You have to remember that she’s still a native Korean and grew up with a Korean parent,” says Han. That is easier for the Koreans to accept.
But her nomination is just the beginning. The next and much bigger step, Han said, would be for a non-South Korean-born immigrant to represent the country. “That would probably be the point where sport could start to play a role in opening up South Korean society.”
The text was translated from English and updated after Phair’s World Cup debut.