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Freestyle football master aims to host global event

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Woo Hee-young
Woo Hee-young
By Ko Dong-hwan

Woo Hee-young, 50, chairman of the World Freestyle Football Federation (WFFF), is seeking to host the first WFFF championship in June at Jamsil Olympic Stadium in Seoul. Woo, who founded the WFFF in 2012, is currently busy contacting associates to make the historical event happen.

"Hosting the inaugural championship is a new challenge for me. But I am now confident since I've already built substantial global fame and experiences," he said in an interview with The Korea Times last week.

Woo has been an "undisputed" master of this unique sport called "art soccer" that demands both athletic technicality and artistic creativity.

Woo's rise as a legendary figure of freestyle football was based on his 20 years of life overseas. With fervent ambition to impress the world with his gifted skill, he first headed to Italy empty-pocketed in 1990 and made daily earnings from street performance for six months.

"That was the harshest period in my life," said Woo. "Gypsies mugged me and I had to live like a beggar."

Moving on to Germany, Woo started making public appearances in major global events. He was invited to perform for Brazilian football legend Pele at his 50th birthday celebration in 1990 as well as at four FIFA World Cups from 1994 till 2006 and the 1992 European Cup.

With growing career came chances for lucrative media exposure. To name a few, he shot ads with Brazilian football star Ronaldinho and signed with logistics firm DHL, English Premier League club Fulham and mobile brand T-Mobile to pose as honorary ambassador.

Around the end of his overseas career, Woo popularized his nickname "Mr. Woo." He considers launching the name as a new merchandising brand for official freestyle uniforms.

Woo came back to Korea in 2010, rejecting eight countries' offers of chairmanship at their own freestyle committees.

"My parents passed away raising me as a kid who knew nothing but football. I want to pay my respect to them instead to my country," said Woo.

He had already made himself known in Korea in 1988, when he audaciously breached security at Jamsil Olympic Stadium during the closing ceremony of the Seoul Summer Olympic Games to show his freestyle skill in front of crowds and foreign correspondents.

He also traveled a marathon course and Incheon Bridge without dropping the ball in 1989 and 2009 respectively, for which he scored Guinness records.

What's been recently baffling Woo is the nation's bureaucrats who are indifferent to promoting the sport nationwide. To strengthen Korea as home to the global sport, he needs the government's support. He hopes to persuade them by successfully hosting the planned championship.

Woo participated in past international championships as a judge, most recently at Red Bull Freestyle Football 2012 held in September in Lecce, Italy. Joined by athletes from 50 countries, the event attracted coverage by 658 global news outlets and generated gross media values of 13 million euros (19 billion won), according to post-event statistics released by Red Bull.

"There's this frenzy among global young folks about freestyle football. Kids engaging in the sport now come up with new awesome techniques I've never seen, which makes me sort of history. The sport evolves along with younger generations."

"Young athletes in the world are now struggling in the absence of authorities introducing a formal layout of global stages," said Woo, who has dedicated himself to reaching out to the spirited grassroots. "With the authorities stepping in and laying the formal groundwork for the sport, more kids will venture into the world to pursue their dreams."

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