Mix Diskerud talks about life on and off the field in South Korea
Photograph by Chad Griffith
Had you ever been to South Korea before you joined Ulsan Hyundai FC?
No, never. First time in South Korea, and first time in Asia as a matter of fact.
Was it culture shock for you when you arrived?
Absolutely! The culture is different from what I’m used to. I try to integrate as well as I can. It is truly an experience to learn different ways—the way you greet people, respect for your elders, shoes off before entering a home. That’s very important. I learned the hard way.
Is it difficult to communicate with your teammates and coaches?
Sometimes! As long as I speak slowly and with simple words, we tend to understand each other. Hand gestures can get you a long way as well. But on the field, the “soccer language” is a global one.
We have a translator on the team who speaks Korean, Portuguese and English. Every team may only have a maximum of three non-asians. We have a Brazilian, which is very common for Korean top-flight teams, an Austrian, and myself.
The translator will be on the pitch with us before, during, and after practice. So if I do something different from what the coach tells me to do, I can easily blame the translator for not having given me the correct instructions (laughs)!
Did you know anyone else on the team or in the league?
No, not personally. But I have played against South Korea a few times with the U.S. National teams, and I knew quite a bit about many of the players.
Jørn Andersen is actually a Norwegian who coaches another team in the K-League. We’ve been in contact, and sad to say, his team is the only team which has beaten us since I have been here at Ulsan. The most interesting fact I can reveal to your readers is that before his coaching job at Incheon here in South Korea, he was the head coach of North Korea’s or Kim Jong-un’s National Team. I am trying to hear all about his experiences in the north.
Once you get on the field, how does it compare to the other places that you’ve played soccer?
It’s a different type of football than in Europe. It’s very offense-minded-play, if that is a term to be coined, at the team level. The tactical structure itself is aggressive. But don’t confuse that with the players themselves, who individually are extremely well behaved and so much in control of their temper. They have a lot of fast players who are also technically good. You often see score sheets with lots of goals in the K-League. I try to bring what I’ve learned throughout the years and integrate those styles of play into the way they play here. We are going through a great run these days by having moved up to 3rd place (8th when I got here) and still advancing in the FA Cup. A team can qualify to the AFC Champions League through winning the Cup or finishing in the top three of the league.
What is the atmosphere at the stadium like?
For certain games, we’ll get big attendance. It depends on who we play against. Sometimes it can be up to 25,000 people. Fireworks, K-pop bands before kickoff, drums, and eating noodles are all very common happenings. However, we are owned by the biggest employer in town, so if the labor union has a quarrel with their counterpart or top management in town, I expect us to play —at long stretches—in front of empty seats.
Off the field, what do you like to do in South Korea?
In general, I like traveling in cities or countries that I have never visited. It’s the same here—new food experiences, except the octopus. They love that here, but I still can’t get myself to try out this version. But personally, meeting new people is the most interesting thing to do.
What has been the most pleasant surprise about playing in South Korea?
Lots of small things. Traveling distances to away games are easily manageable. Many of the stadiums are impressive. Before the World Cup in Korea back in 2002, there were several facilities that were built specifically for this world’s biggest tournament. Players here play tough, but fair.
What is the most challenging part of playing there?
When I first got here, we were playing, on average, a game every three days in a type of heat and humidity that I’d never experienced in my life. It takes a toll on everyone, of course. Having grown up in a cold and arctic environment, it was tough to even attempt to adapt. Hopefully, I have gained something.
What is the most challenging part of living there?
Communication in daily life! Google translate does not work as well as I had wished. People tend not to speak any of the European languages, so grocery shopping, restaurant visits, errands and the other “normal” things becomes kind of an adventure. And I have to, and do, see that as a positive. It’s kind of fun actually. All the episodes I had seen of M*A*S*H didn’t help me a bit. (laughs)
Photograph by Chad Griffith
If there was one thing that you wished people could know and experience about the K-League, what would it be?
If you watch a K-League game, expect to see fouls where the referee does not. And don’t be surprised about how many times the play goes on while players look bewildered. It is a different style of play here, and the refs are definitely a part of it, but not in a biased way.
Another thing is the offensive mindset of the teams. There was a game that showed 0-0 on the scoreboard after 83 minutes. When the whistle blew at the 94th minute, the game was tied at 3-3. Imagine those 11 minutes with every emotion possible for a fan. That’s South Korea for you!