Sunderland will leave the relegation zone if they beat Southampton today, with Ki Sung-Yueng having played a major role in their revival. Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson met the midfielder and discovered a player focused on the problems of the present rather than fretting about the future
FORGET Korea. As far as Ki Sung-Yueng is concerned in the five months leading into this summer’s World Cup finals, there is only career that counts, and that is the one he is constructing at Sunderland.
As one of the most high-profile members of the South Korean team that will take on Belgium, Algeria and Russia in Brazil, the 24-year-old will have the hopes of a nation on his shoulders when he heads to South America. For now though, it is the worries of Wearside that he is determined to allay.
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Despite the recent flurry that has lifted Sunderland off the foot of the table and taken them to within six points of tenth-placed Hull ahead of today’s game with Southampton, the spectre of relegation still haunts the Stadium of Light and prevents anyone looking too far ahead.
The World Cup can wait, as can the inevitable questions over Ki’s long-term future that he bats away with a knowing smile. There is a strong chance of the midfielder joining Sunderland on a permanent basis in the summer, particularly as his parent club, Swansea, passed up the chance to recall him from his season-long loan.
But that will only happen if relegation is avoided, and until safety is assured, all other issues are effectively on the back burner.
“In my mind, the first thing I want is to stay in the league with Sunderland,” said Ki. “That is my priority. I do not want to think about or achieve anything else right now. Just help this team stay up. That is the main thing in my mind, not my future, not the World Cup. Nothing “I can think about all those things later. Sunderland are the club who are paying me, and if we go down, my feelings will not be great. Even though I am just a loan player, this is where I am staying and playing. That means I want to show I can help this team, at least a little bit.
“I feel a bond with this club. If you are a professional player, you have to give everything no matter what the circumstances. You do not care who you are or where you are from - it is the team that is important.
“People might say I may not really care because I am only on loan, but I completely disagree. If I can help at all, then that is what I want to do. If I can contribute to the team, that has value for me.”
He might be softly spoken, but Ki converses with a determination and depth of feeling that underlines how seriously he takes his football. He might be half of the ‘South Korean Posh and Becks’ – his wife, Han Hye-jin is a leading South Korean actress – but that is where the similarities with the publicity-seeking former England captain end.
Hailed as one of the brightest prospects in Asian football after breaking through at FC Seoul, Ki was lured to the bright lights of Europe as he joined Celtic in 2009.
He envisaged being a star from the moment he set foot at Parkhead, but the reality proved somewhat more challenging. From being a big fish in a small pond, the Asian Champions League winner became small fry in Europe’s footballing ocean. Initially, the transition was hard to accept.
“I am lucky in that I have always been quite a big name and successful in my home country,” said Ki. “But as soon as you move away, you realise that there are wonderful players all around the world.
“I may be a big star in Korea but as soon as I came over to Europe, that all changed. I realise that there are a lot of good players over here who are a lot better than me. They are playing in Europe every weekend. And the knowledge of that makes me want to improve.
“If you are a big star in your own country, you sometimes do not realise there are other stars in every other country that plays the game. But that should motivate you to get better and reach even higher standards.”
While he never quite established himself as a permanent fixture in Celtic’s first team, Ki won a Scottish title before making a £6m switch to Swansea. He lasted a season at the Liberty Stadium, winning a Capital One Cup winners’ medal, but was deemed to surplus to requirements before joining Sunderland on loan last August.
He was sold the vision of a club going places under Paolo Di Canio. He found a club going downhill at a rate of knots.
“There were times I wondered what I had got myself into, but that was not just me,” he said. “Everyone was the same. There were managers changing and we just could not get a result. It was a tough time for everyone, not just me. But when Gus came, things started to improve straight away.”
Poyet introduced a marked change in playing style, with an increased emphasis on retaining possession, patiently constructing passing moves and feeding as much of the play as possible through the heart of midfield. As a central midfielder, Ki has been integral to Poyet’s approach, with his technical ability becoming increasingly evident with every game.
“It suits the way I play my football,” he said. “That is why I feel I can perform better now. I can play to my strengths. Keeping the ball, passing the ball and helping the strikers. I have even shown that I can score myself which is something I did not even realise I can do!
“Maybe, no one expected us to keep the ball as well as we have. But we have done it and now we are doing it every week. I think we can do much better because we have only really been working on this method for two months. As time goes by, we will improve even more.”