Ramadan Reflections: Other Religions In Football - Christianity In Korea

A special report from Goal.com staff in South Korea...
With Ramadan being upon us, Islam in football has received much headline time of late. But the interplay between faith and football - for better or worse - does not end there.

In South Korea there is a team of Christians attempting to meld religion and sport in the form of Hallelujah FC. Goal.com Korea spoke to the general manager of the Ansan club to find out more...

Hallelujah FC, founded in 1980 for Christian missionary work, was the first ever professional football club started in South Korea and won the inaugural K-League title. But, the club has been a through a plethora of ups and downs including the side’s dissolution in 1998 due to the financial crisis of Korea. It also had to move its home city twice, once for religious conflict with One Buddhist in 2003, the other caused by having artificial turf in their stadium in 2006.

Hallelujah FC is a religious based club, which is a rare case in professional football. There are a few clubs established by a particular religion such as Rangers (Protestant), Celtic (Catholic) and AFC Ajax (Judaism), but most of today's clubs are free from religious colour and trying to globalise themselves. In this sense, Hallelujah is a very unique football club.  

Goal.com had an exclusive interview with Young-mu Lee, the coach and director of Hallelujah FC to cast light on the motivation of the establishing the club, activity, and opinion on how religious activities affect sports, especially football.

Lee, the founding member of Hallelujah FC, was the first football player to pray on the pitch as his goal celebration. He was also on the board of technique in Korean Football Associations and was the chief board of technique between in 2006 to 2008.

Goal.com: What inspired you to found Hallelujah FC?

Lee: Hallelujah FC was established in 1980 supported by Soonyoung Choi and mostly consisted of evangelical Christian players. The club was aimed not only at the development of Korean football but also of the missionary work through football inside and outside of Korea.

Goal.com: Evangelical Christianity has several denominations such as Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, etc. Is Hallelujah FC related to a particular one or is it trans-denominational?

Lee: It was not founded by a particular denomination but players made the club of their own volition. It is a trans-denominational club.

Goal.com: Are there any Christian activities of the club, apart from prayer and worship?

Lee: Yes. We visit military camps and play football with soldiers and sometimes have a gathering for confession of faith with them. In the early days of the club, we’ve visited remote places and small villages to teach and play football with the youngsters there. Today, we still have various voluntary and missionary works with orphanages and community homes. We’re also doing overseas missionary work, too. This year, we went to Thailand, the land of Buddhism, for the Queen’s Cup Football Tournament 2009, and there we did missionary activities along with playing football.

Goal.com: How active is the players’ involvement?

Lee: Almost every player has participated in those activities unless there is an emergency.

Goal.com: Do you have any religious rituals before or after a match?

Lee: During the regular match, we just pray together before and after the game. But, when we have voluntary activities for community and friendly matches, sometimes we have confession of faith, praise or worship dance during half-time. We did the worship dance when we participated in the Queen’s Cup this year, and it went down well with the fans in the stadium.

Goal.com: How do you run the club financially?

Lee: We are officially supported by Ansan city and E-Land (about 10,000 dollars per month for jersey deal). Also we receive financial support from several churches and individuals (including Youngpyo Lee), although our financial situation is not always good because we don’t have a main sponsor. However, the biggest sponsor of the club is God.      

Goal.com: What do you think of introducing an up-and-down system to K-league?

Lee: I think we must have an up-down system. Not only do Japan and China have it, but also East Asian countries like Thai and Malaysian league have well-established up-and-down systems, except for South Korea. I feel sorry for that.     

Goal.com: Have you ever brought a non-Christian player into the team?

Lee: From the beginning of the club, we’ve bought players regardless whether they are Christians or not. Rather, I believe, when a player who is not Christian joins the team, we have chance to preach the gospel to him.

Goal.com: What is the most important quality when you choose a player? Faith or talent? 

Lee: Our ideal type of player should be the one who possesses both faith and talent, of course. However, we are a professional football club, which means we can make someone good but not Christian into a Christian player, but it is unlikely to scout someone who is not good enough but is a devout Christian.

Goal.com: Did you make all non Christian players who’ve come to the club convert to Christianity? Or have you failed to do so?

Lee: Players who join Hallelujah FC are already familiar with the characteristics of the club before they even join. Therefore, most of players tend to be settled well. However, at times, there are a few players who do not adapt well and request a transfer. 

Goal.com: It is said that the reason Hallelujah FC moved from Iksan to Kimpo was the opponents of Won Buddhists in Iksan. It is true? 

Lee: For 10 years, Hallelujah FC had been the representative of Iksan for the National Games. So the football federation of Jeonbook province wanted us to be the football team of Iksan, and we accepted it. However some extreme Won Buddhists in the city opposed it vehemently. For your information, the headquarters of Won Buddhism is in Iksan. We think it was better to move the home city rather than staying there causing a conflict with a resident who did not want us around.   

Goal.com: Most Ansan citizens are pleased with the fact that they have their own football club while there are some discontenting voices on the religious club name, Hallelujah. What do you think about it?

Lee: First of all, I am very pleased with being the football club of Ansan. It is beautiful place with a very nice stadium, and the city supports us a lot.

I fully understand some people have repelling reaction against the name, Hallelujah. But, I know that we cannot be 100% welcomed from everyone, even if we are not a religious club. We are the particular religion-based club. And wherever we go, I know the same issues will follow us.

However, I want to make one thing clear. We will not change the club name, because the very motif of establishing the club itself came from preaching the Christian gospel to the world. And in order to maintain the club’s legacy and tradition as an original club member of the K-league, we don’t want to change our name. Also, we receive financial support from Korean churches.  

Goal.com: You are well known for the first praying goal celebration in Korea. Today many players in national team are doing prayer ceremony celebrations while some fans feel it impedes team work. What do you think?

Lee: Someone who has been a professional player would probably understand that there is a lot of pressure before an important match. So, players comfort themselves through their religion. That’s why many players have a religion. Therefore, the moment they score, they become thrilled so much that they naturally pray to God without thinking.

For Christians, love and peace are the first priority, so we try to bring more harmony into the team. Therefore, I don’t believe simply because they do not share the emotion during a goal ceremony, it means they impede team work.

Goal.com: There is a debate around the Ramadan fast in European football. What do you think of this religious ritual as someone who has religion?

Lee: Religion is a private issue, but player should think of the team. Professional football players must contribute to the team. So, as long as they can maintain full fitness during a fast, it will be okay. The most important thing is that it should not affect the game.

When I was a player, I have attended all night vigil worship services before the match day. I realised it is very difficult to play on the pitch after staying up.

For a professional player, controlling his own condition and being fully fit at all times is the most important of all.  

Goal.com: What if other religions establishes a football club?

Lee: Aye, if it helps for the growth of Korean football.

Hyunmin Kim, Goal.com Korea

This is the fourth article in Goal.com's Ramadan Reflections series. We bring you views from the medical profession, from sporting figures, and from supporters, on the practice of fasting, as well as a special look at other examples in which religion and football intersect.