South Korea's national football team has qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, but there's one other thing the country is looking to achieve: sending its referees to the sport's showpiece event. The Korea Football Association (KFA) is pushing for the refereeing trio of Kim Jong-hyeok, Yoon Kwang-yeol and Kim Young-ha to officiate matches at the World Cup in Russia. In order to become World Cup referees, they must earn a recommendation from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) before FIFA makes its final decision. Kim Jong-hyeok, 34, has been working as the main referee and is the youngest of the three. If his group earns selection, he will be the first South Korean to serve as a head referee at the top FIFA competition on foreign soil. "If you're a football referee, you want to officiate matches at the World Cup," Kim said to Yonhap News Agency on Thursday at KFA House in Seoul. "People say World Cup referees are chosen from heaven. I just hope I hear good news later." FIFA will announce the match officials for the 2018 World Cup when the group draw takes place at the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow on 1 December 2017.
The history of South Korean officials at the World Cup started in 1994 when Park Hae-yong worked as an assistant referee at the tournament in the United States. He was followed by Jeon Young-hyun, who also served as a linesman at the 1998 World Cup in France. At the 2002 World Cup, which was co-hosted by South Korea and Japan, Kim Young-joo became first Korean head referee for a World Cup match in a group stage contest between Brazil and Turkey in Ulsan. South Korea then produced Kim Dae-young and Jeong Hae-sang as assistant referees for the 2006 and the 2010 World Cups, respectively. South Korea, however, failed to send a World Cup referee to Brazil in 2014 after FIFA started selecting match officials as a team. "I don't know exactly when, but after we failed to produce referees for the 2014 World Cup, the KFA President Chung Mong-gyu pointed out that we should have one for the next World Cup," Kim said. "The KFA then started a so-called 'future World Cup referee' project and six members were selected. But one group quit and now there are only three." Kim's group has been gradually building up its reputation. The three South Koreans were one of the 22 refereeing trios at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in South Korea earlier this year. They have also officiated matches in the 2018 World Cup qualifying competition. The trio will take charge of the AFC Champions League semifinal between Al Hilal and Persepolis in the United Arab Emirates next week. "In domestic league matches, even if you commit mistakes, you can recover in the next match, but on the international stage, every match is critical," he said. "A single mistake can cause people to file letters of complaint against us, but so far, we haven't received any."
Kim started his refereeing career 16 years ago. When he began playing football at age 11, Kim wanted to become a professional player, but a series of knee injuries prevented him from pursuing his dream. His high school coach Ki Young-ok, father of Swansea City midfielder Ki Sung-yueng and now general manager of K League Classic side Gwangju FC, then suggested Kim pursue a refereeing career. "I didn't like it at first when Ki told me that I would be fit for a referee job," he said. "But I found out that refereeing is fun. While I was taking referee classes, I realized that I could work internationally and decided to pursue a career in refereeing." Kim said he watches match videos for at least four to five hours a week to study various situations that can happen during a game. Maintaining good fitness and studying English are also important since he needs to run up and down the field with pro players and communicate with them. "Since I was once a player, I thought I would do well in refereeing, but applying the rules is different from playing football," he said. "I found out that once you know the team's tactics, the key players and personalities of each player, it really helps in refereeing." Kim, who won the KFA's top referee award last year, said he doesn't think there's a set standard for good refereeing. "Even if I thought I had refereed a match well, I always feel some regret after reviewing my performance," he said. "So I just try to minimize my mistakes as much as possible." Kim, a father of two children, said it would be a great honor for him and his family if he were to referee at the upcoming World Cup. And he also hopes his selection can further change negative perceptions of football referees, who have been tainted by match-fixing and bribery scandals in the past. He added that it's time for referees to go out and prove that they're doing good for football. "I hope people will have a positive view of referees," he said. "Personally, I want to recommend this job to my son, because being a referee really is a wonderful job."