Jokgu (족구), true Korean style football

Written by on March 27, 2012 in Lifestyle
Why is American football called football? With the exception of the kicker/punter, no one is actually allowed to use their foot. So while the rest of the world calls it football, it’s called soccer in the USA. However, to be fair, the Korean word for football/soccer, chukggu (축구), doesn’t exactly mean football, either.
Chukgu (蹴球) is a combination of the hanja meaning “kick” and “ball” so basically, it means “kickball”, which is a different thing altogether. (By the way, kickball in Korean is bal yagu (발야구), i.e. “foot baseball”.) So what is the true football in Korea? In comes jokgu (足球), literally “football”, a game which I think is uniquely popular in Korea.

Oooh, a jokgu court! Let’s all get out of the car and play!

Jokgu is played everywhere. Where there is an empty space, a ball, no goal posts, and several bored guys, jokgu would be played. As the court does not require a large space and the game can be played with a small number of players, it is an easy game to play in various environments. Although there are girls who play, it is also the quintessential “guy sport”. (I’ve never, ever, seen girls playing jokgu in real life.)

Once you’re in uniform, it becomes a serious sport

The rules of jokgu are simple: it’s like playing volleyball, only with your feet and occasionally, head. The court resembles a tennis court, as the net hangs low. The objective is to drop the ball in the other team’s side and garner points. Official games would have 4 players in the play and 3 on the bench for each side. A player serves the ball over the net to the other side (it must be a no bound serve) and then the 3-3 rules apply: bound and/or ball touch has to be within 3. 3 sets are played in total, and the final score for a set-out is 15. In the case of the tied score of deuce, the team that gets 2 points first wins, and the limit score is 19.
There are no definite distinctions in player’s position: every player can play defense or offense, so unless you have a good game strategy, you’ll see players running all over the place. Like all team sports, it’s not an individual game.

Jokgu needs style and flair

Although official matches follow the regulations to a T, most people who enjoy the sport dig their heels in the ground and make adequate lines to play, sometimes even without a net. The number of set played and number of points to be scored are very flexible when played casually, although that does not necessarily mean the players also play casually. There are plenty of hidden masters of jokgu in every neighborhood, those who shoot a mean overkick without pause.
No one is quite sure where the sport came from. Korea has a very long history of ball games; there are records of something similar being played in the Three Kingdoms period, which many scholars believe to have developed into both jokgu and soccer. Jokgu was revived in the 1960s as a means for soldiers to get exercise (while having fun) in a small space. Official rules were established by a lieutenant in the air force and the sport quickly caught on in all of the military. Jokgu is still considered a main sport of the Korean military, so every Korean man who has served his mandatory military duty is likely to be familiar with jokgu. (They say you can tell who has had a desk job and who was in the field of the “proper” military by their jokgu skills.)

There are several woman jokgu teams in Korea

Jokgu has developed since those early years; rules and regulations have been modified, it has become more than a military sport, and now even women are playing it in official matches. Various teams have sprout up, both pro and amateur, and official matches started to be broadcast on national TV in the 1990s. The National Jokgu Association has been trying to introduce the sport to other countries, most notably to Thailand, whose national sport of Sepak takraw is almost identical.

Members of variety show “1 Night 2 Days” play jokgu in the dead of winter

These days, jokgu is firmly established and is mostly considered an “everyday life“ sport. As I mentioned before, you’ll see people playing it everywhere. Now that the weather is warmer and people will start picnicking outdoors, you’ll probably be able to see quite a lot of games going on. Not that it is only played in warm weather. You’ll see people playing it in cold and chilly circumstances as well; most probably because they have a bet to settle such as “proving their masculinity” or something.
In the end, jokgu is fun. It’s fun to play and fun to watch. You don’t have to be exceptionally tall or be a terrific runner to be a good player. And being a spectator is even more fun: if the teams are good, fine; if the teams are bad, even better. Hilarity ensues when people play bad jokgu so all in all, it’s a win-win situation. Play ball!

About the Author

Suzy Chung

Multilingual editor, writer, and translator. Coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, and a billion other things. I tend to talk a lot. @suzyinseoul