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Brazilian flair to Jeju United, Jeju, South Korea

2 November 2007 No Comment

Irineu It’s a sunny afternoon at the Jeju United clubhouse, and after two years of watching the team as a devoted fan, I’m about to interview their Brazilian born star. The JU players are loading onto the team bus out front as I wait for Ricardo Irineu in the lobby. I’ve been told that neither he nor his Portuguese translator speaks English, so I’ve brought along my own Korean translator to decipher the Korean translation of his Portuguese. We sit on a circle of plush chairs, a row of trophies and a Jeju United flag adorning the far wall. Irineu joins us a few minutes later and the interview begins. I start by asking him to tell me about his days playing soccer in Brazil. The question is translated into Korean before Irineu’s translator gives it to him in Portuguese. Irineu nods and quietly answers. The Portuguese translator relays it to the Korean, who then passes it on to me. It’s a trilingual game of ‘telephone’ and I’m wondering how much is getting lost in translation. “Do Koreans recognize you when you’re out in public?” I ask.

After the question makes its way through another round of translation and back, my Korean aid turns to me with the answer. “He says he enjoys playing for the team and his manager is a good man.” I thwack my pen against the notepad and frown.

But through the fog of language emerges Irineu’s story. The 29 year old from Cascaberra was originally attracted to Korea by the K-league’s higher pay and strict business practices. In Brazil it’s not uncommon for management to either be weeks late in paying a player’s salary or fail to pay it all. So the young forward’s agent compiled video footage of Irineu’s play and sent it off to the K-League. Seungnam Ilhwa Chunma liked what they saw and signed him to a contract in 2001. He played with them and Bucheon before finally landing with the fledgling Jeju United FC in 2006.

It took some time for him to adjust to life in Korea. He had problems communicating with the locals and his stomach couldn’t handle the spicy food. Like many other Brazilians, Irineu prefers eating beef to pork, which is difficult to do when living on an island where pork is virtually ubiquitous, and beef prices are amongst the highest in the world. Nowadays though, Irineu says he’s dealt with his initial culture shock and fallen in love with his new home in Jeju.

Jeju United Manager Park Sang Joon is quick to praise his star forward’s skills on the pitch. He’s a crafty playmaker who leads the team with six goals. And the man is fast. He runs the 100 meter in 12 seconds flat. Irineu comes from a much quicker Brazilian game and he brings that speed and creativeness to Jeju’s attack.

But when asked what Irineu’s greatest contribution to his team has been, JU President Chung Soon Ki gave a surprising answer: character. “He’s a very honest man,” says Chung, who’s been impressed with Irineu’s attitude and work ethic, adding that many foreigners who come to play in Korea’s pro-league play hard in their first season but tend to rest on their laurels after returning for their second. Not so with Irineu, claims Chung, whom he says still shows the same level of intensity and drive after six years in Korea.

Off the field, Irineu is reserved and soft-spoken. He’s a devoted Christian who spends most of his free time with his family. He says his wife loves everything about Jeju but the lack of shopping, and when not bound to Jeju United’s grueling schedule of games and practices, they like to hang out at Jungmun beach or go for walks at Yeomiji botanical garden.

The clean air, the friendly locals and the gorgeous scenery managed to win him and his wife over to Jeju. Though they travel back to Brazil during the off-season, Jeju has become like a second home to them and he says when his contract ends this year, he’s planning on renewing.

It’s game time at World Cup Stadium, an elegant field built for the 2002 FIFA World Cup. The Stadium’s soaring roofline reaches dramatically into the sky, an architectural flourish inspired by the traditional boats of Jeju. Korean fans snack on dried squid and ramen as the Jeju United supporters club pound drums and sing fight songs set to Christmas melodies. Here, the only language spoken is football, and the one thing that doesn’t get lost in translation is Irineu’s desire to win. “It’s a beautiful stadium,” says Irineu. “I feel proud to play here.”

– Brian Miller

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