A forgotten man in England, Jesse Lingard is box office in South Korea

Stuart James

They called it ‘The Lingard Zone’.

It was an area set up just outside FC Seoul’s stadium to deal with the extraordinary hype and excitement around the home debut of the biggest signing in the K-League’s 41-year history.

A forgotten man back home in England, Jesse Lingard is box-office material in South Korea, where the astonishing level of interest surrounding him prompted his new club to open a temporary ‘shop’ on Sunday: the only thing you could buy was the FC Seoul No 10 shirt.

Queues started forming four hours before kick-off against Incheon and were soon stretching for as far as the eye could see (Lingard’s representatives clearly knew what they were doing when they negotiated a commercial deal that included a percentage of shirt sales).


Fans queue to buy a Jesse Lingard shirt (Stuart James/The Athletic)

It is hard, almost impossible in fact, to overstate the fascination with Lingard in South Korea.

In his first competitive game for FC Seoul, away against Gwangju on the opening weekend of the season, all 7,805 tickets sold out in two minutes and thirty seconds.

Against Incheon on Sunday, when Lingard was never going to be in the starting XI because of his lack of match practice, the attendance was 51,670, which was more than double FC Seoul’s average last season.

FC Seoul’s YouTube channel has seen an 800 per cent increase in new viewers and they are now the first K-League club to register more than 100,000 subscribers.

If all of this sounds slightly surreal for those familiar with Lingard’s story — bearing in mind he has just spent eight months in the wilderness after being released by Nottingham Forest last summer — there are plenty of football fans in South Korea who are struggling to make sense of what is going on too.


Inside the ‘Lingard Zone’ at FC Seoul (Stuart James/The Athletic)

Most seem flabbergasted — and that is not too strong a word to use — that Lingard, who has won 32 England caps, made more than 230 appearances for Manchester United and was earning £115,000 (now $147,000) a week in the Premier League last season, has chosen the K-League to reignite his career.

After all, China and Japan have always tended to be the destinations of choice for high-profile players moving to the Far East, largely because of the money on offer in those countries. In contrast, the last Englishman to sign for a K-League club before Lingard was the former Birmingham and Cardiff midfielder Jordon Mutch.


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For the avoidance of doubt, Gyeongnam FC never felt the need to set up a “Mutch Zone”. At FC Seoul, however, they literally can’t unbox the Lingard shirts quickly enough.

“It’s so unexpected that Lingard came here,” says Kim Bong-hee, pictured below, who has just spent half an hour queuing with his eight-year-old daughter.

“I’m an FC Seoul fan but I’m also a Manchester United fan, so this is a great opportunity to get his shirt.”


Supporter Kim Bong-hee and his daughter with a Lingard jersey (Stuart James/The Athletic)

And what about Lingard’s potential impact on the team?

“I do like the fact that more fans will come because of Lingard and that will be beneficial for the club,” Kim replies. “But I’m putting my faith in the new manager because no individual player, I think, can change a team.”

That seems a wise stance to adopt given that FC Seoul haven’t won a title for eight years and have finished no higher than seventh (in a 12-team league) in the previous four seasons.


January 21, 2024, United Arab Emirates.

Lingard is training in Dubai, going through some fitness drills as the sun breaks through the clouds.

Warming up with his personal trainer in the background, he talks to his 9.4 million Instagram followers in a video captioned “2024 MOOD!”.

In many ways, Lingard is talking to himself.

“Are you coming out? No!

“Do you want a drink? No!

“‘Oh, this person is saying this about this person’. I don’t care, bro. I don’t want to know.

“No negativity. Positive vibes. Aura. Energy.

“High vibrations. Do you know what I mean?

“Parties? Nah, bro. I’m done with that.

“Alcohol? No thanks.

“Training? Yep.

“Gym. Yep.

“Family. Yep.

“Football. Yep.

“Bro, it’s all mindset. You get your mind right and your body right.

“Spiritually, mentally, physically — I’m a beast, bro.

“Beast!”

The first comment posted underneath the clip is brutal and typical of so much on social media.

“Got a club? No.”

Lingard, essentially, was unemployed — a non-footballing footballer who has spent the winter months flitting between training camps in the Middle East and a sports centre in Newton Heath, which is only a 15-minute drive from Old Trafford but a long way from the Theatre of Dreams in every other sense.

Although he has received a number of offers, from clubs in the Championship and Major League Soccer, and the Turkish side Besiktas, and trained with the Saudi Pro League side Al Ettifaq, nothing has made him jump — until now.

In January, a Korean agent reached out to Andy Pollard, Lingard’s financial advisor, with a proposition that turned out to be surprisingly appealing.

FC Seoul, who are the best-supported club in South Korea, were keen.

After visiting Manchester to watch Lingard train and gauge his physical condition, the K-League club offered a two-year contract that came with a basic salary worth around £900,000 a year.

“A new beginning,” Lingard said.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Inside Lingard’s South Korea deal: How FC Seoul convinced him it’s the right move


Monday, February 5 and the arrivals lounge at Incheon International Airport is a lot busier than normal.

As camera crews jostle for position, hundreds of supporters have lined up to greet Lingard, holding up Manchester United shirts (a legacy of the former South Korea international Park Ji-sung’s time at Old Trafford), shouting “Jesse”, pleading for autographs and selfies, and generally treating him like football royalty.

As a couple of security staff try to usher Lingard through the terminal, one supporter passes him a wooden instrument. Lingard accepts the gift, almost without realising, and looks down every now and again to inspect what he is holding in his hand.

“‘Danso’ is the Korean word,” explains Sungmo Lee, a Korean football reporter. “It’s a traditional bamboo flute. They gave him that as a welcome present as Lingard has a trademark celebration where he’s playing the flute after he scores. That celebration is very popular in Korea, and the photo of him holding the danso went viral among Korean fans.”

Lingard


Lingard’s ‘flute’ celebration after scoring for Manchester United against Middlesbrough in March 2017 (Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Lingard is extremely well-liked among football supporters in South Korea, and it doesn’t take long to realise that his larger-than-life personality is a big part of his appeal.

In 2019, a YouTube video titled ‘Lingard Best Football Player’ quickly attracted more than a million views in the country. That number has climbed to 2.2million.

It is not, however, a showreel featuring a collection of Lingard’s best goals and assists.

Instead, it is one minute and 22 seconds of Lingard pulling faces, dancing with Paul Pogba in the Manchester United dressing room, practising his goal celebrations, pretending to style his hair in the mirror, performing elaborate handshakes and, generally, playing up to the camera. In short, it makes you smile.

The child-like music and lyrics that accompany the footage were taken from a cartoon TV series in South Korea and, some would say, capture Lingard perfectly.

Others argue that Lingard is misunderstood and say that behind all the joking around, and the social media persona, is a footballer who trains as hard as anyone and likes nothing more than being out on the pitch.

Either way, the flute celebration made the cut in that YouTube video and, according to Sungmo Lee, “the Korean internet will explode” if Lingard revisits that routine while wearing a FC Seoul shirt.

First things first, Lingard needs to score, which is something he hasn’t managed to do in a competitive game since a Carabao Cup tie for Nottingham Forest against Blackburn Rovers 15 months ago. His last league goal was in September 2021, for Manchester United against West Ham, and it is approaching two and a half years since he was picked to play for England.

Lingard


Lingard playing for England in June 2021 (Stu Forster – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

If all of that makes Lingard sound like yesterday’s man, it is certainly not how he is viewed in South Korea.

“It’s a huge signing,” says Younghoon Jang, a television commentator and former academy coach in Korea. “Many people have thought the K-league has been a league that exports players to Europe and other Asian leagues where there’s more economical capacity. But now people start to think about it in a different way. His signing is a kind of proof that the K-league by itself has big potential and is an attractive competition where a well-known player like Lingard wants to play.

“People not just want to see him playing, but also have a curiosity as to what makes him come to the K-league.”

Outside of South Korea, people are surprised by that decision too.

When English players have moved to the K-League in the past, they have tended to be journeymen and, invariably, not lasted very long.

Arguably the most successful was the former Burnley and Stoke City forward Andy Cooke, who signed for Busan I’Cons in 2003 and adapted to life far better than his strike partner and compatriot Jamie Cureton, who was homesick and, by his own admission, depressed.

Cooke, in contrast, only has good memories of his 18-month sojourn with Busan.

“Before I signed. I Googled the stadium,” he tells The Athletic. “It was like a spaceship and I thought, ‘That’ll do. Life is too short, let’s go!’

“I fully bought into the culture — I think you have to in order to appreciate living there. The people are so friendly, and I tried to learn a bit of the language.”

Asked how he thinks Lingard will fare in South Korea, Cooke replies: “He’s in Seoul, so he’s in the (capital) city — there’s a massive expat community there and the stadium is amazing.

“Obviously the money they’re willing to pay him is a factor in going there — it was one of the main reasons I went, albeit I wasn’t earning what Jesse is.

“But I think the whole experience will be an eye-opener for him. You can probably just live your life quite normally.”


Friday evening in Seoul and a biting wind is sweeping through the stands by a training pitch at a high school in the heart of this vast, sprawling city.

It is 48 hours before Lingard makes his home debut against Incheon and Kim Jin-kyu has come to watch the club’s under-18s train.

“Jesse is a big inspiration for the young kids,” Kim says, looking at a group of teenagers taking part in a rondo. “That is one of many reasons why we looked into signing him, and therefore we deem him to be a really good signing for the whole club.”

Kim smiles. “For such a superstar, I’ve never seen anyone work so hard,” he adds.

A highly-respected former player, Kim won the K-League title with FC Seoul and represented South Korea at the World Cup finals in 2006. He has held all sorts of roles at FC Seoul since retiring from playing, including being installed as caretaker manager for four months last season. Nowadays, he is the chief scout.


Kim Jin-kyu (Stuart James/The Athletic)

Kim has a video on his phone of the footage that FC Seoul recorded when they went to visit Lingard in Manchester to put him through some physical tests.

Although Lingard is in good shape, FC Seoul recognise the need to be sensible with someone who has spent so long out of the game; he played only 86 minutes of competitive football in 2023.

Lingard also needs time to adjust to his new team-mates, the standard of the football in South Korea, the quality of the pitches, and the tactics in a league where defending in a low block seems to be the default setting for the majority of coaches.

“In terms of Lingard adapting to K-League life, we’re providing him with as much support as possible,” Kim explains. “We have Ki Sung-yueng, who has Premier League experience, so he’s helping him out as well.

“Obviously Jesse will have to adapt to the kind of tactics we employ here too and, although we know that he is a very technical player, he hasn’t played for a while so he needs to bring up his condition to his very best.”

Against Gwangju on March 2, Lingard came on as a 77th-minute substitute. Television cameras immediately panned to the stands, where supporters craned their necks and held up their mobile phones to see, and capture, what is regarded as a landmark moment for the K-League.

But is Lingard really the most famous footballer to be signed by a South Korean club?

“There was a player called Kiki Musampa, who played for Manchester City,” Kim replies, referencing the former Dutch winger who scored some spectacular goals for City when they were living in United’s shadow. “He came to the K-League before (and signed for FC Seoul in 2008). But if we have to compare, Jesse is a more high-profile player.”

Ultimately, Lingard’s cameo in Gwangju served as a reminder as to why everyone needs to be patient. A slightly off-balance left-footed shot from outside the area sailed behind and Lingard was booked in stoppage time for a late challenge that prompted an angry reaction from one of the Gwangju players.

“As he didn’t have enough time with us, he’s not in his best form yet,” Ki said afterwards. “However, he still had some good moments. I will try to make him (better).”

If Ki’s presence at FC Seoul feels important for Lingard from a footballing point of view — the 35-year-old spent a decade in Britain playing for Celtic, Swansea, Sunderland and Newcastle and speaks fluent English – there is no doubt that adapting to life off the field has been made easier by the fact that Lingard’s best friend Sunny Digwa has moved to South Korea with him.

The two of them are staying in a hotel in Gangnam, one of Seoul’s most exclusive neighbourhoods and an area made famous more than a decade ago by Psy, the South Korean singer and rapper, singing that song and performing that dance.

Close friends from childhood, Sunny knows Lingard as well as anyone. Indeed, there was a revealing conversation between the two of them in the Channel 4 documentary that was aired about Lingard’s life a couple of years ago, when Sunny asked, “Do you still have the hunger?”

“I think it’s in there,” Sunny said. “But it’s blocked by something else. We need to unlock it.”


There is only half an hour on the clock when Lingard is introduced from the bench against Incheon with instructions, passed on by the translator who is never far from his side, “to play as a No 10 and try to get in-between the lines”.


Lingard comes on for his debut (Stuart James/The Athletic)

Naturally, Lingard’s arrival is greeted with huge cheers and five minutes after coming on he plays a lovely disguised pass that slips Kang Sang-woo free on goal. It is a flash of brilliance that feels totally out of place in a scrappy game. Kang should score but the forward’s effort is repelled.

When Lingard hooks a pass over his head later in the game, the crowd roar their approval again.

But then the moment that everyone has been waiting for arrives. It is the 83rd minute and Lingard finally receives a lovely pass. Unmarked, about 14 yards out, he swings his right boot at the ball and his shot balloons over the bar.

Lingard looks down at the pitch in disbelief.

“The ball was perfect. It bobbled just as I hit it,” he said later. “But it won’t get my confidence down.”

The match ends goalless and Lingard, understandably, looks a little frustrated.

His work is not done, however. There is only one person the Korean television broadcasters are going to ask to speak to for a post-match interview. Another interview follows that, meaning that he is still standing pitch-side 20 minutes after the game has finished.

Incredibly, a huge number of fans have stayed behind to watch him holding a microphone. Applause breaks out when he finally finishes.


Lingard doing post-match interviews (Stuart James/The Athletic)

It is another sign of the Lingard effect.

“Since I landed here, from the first day, the fans and support at the airport made me feel really welcome,” he says.

“The people at training and the hotel I’m staying at — the love has been amazing. You want to do well for them, not only for yourself, and I want to give them the energy that they give me.”

(Top photo: Stuart James)





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