An attitude of dejection is pervasive among many young Koreans these days. Getting into a decent college was hard enough but landing a decent job is becoming evermore difficult. Prohibitive housing and childcare costs are preventing jobless young adults or those on an unstable income from getting married and bearing children.

The low birthrate and the aging of population got some politicians thinking. Why not let children start elementary school at age five and finish high school by 15 or 16? In this scenario, those who matriculate to college would graduate by the time they are 20 and still have 10 years or so to soul search and get a job and start a family before they get to thirties. While there may be some truth in what these politicians promote as “a global trend,” many people are concerned that lawmakers are not addressing the problem of youth unemployment head on. Surely, it’s not because people are starting their education two years late that they aren’t able to find a job and get married.

President Park, headstrong about getting state-issued Korean history textbooks into the hands of all middle and high school students, started up “Youth Hope Fund” by becoming the first person to donate. This fund, created to assist young adults, has been criticized for pressuring ordinary workers to chip in as some banks pressed their employees over email to join the fund rather than encouraging voluntary participation. The fund also did not come with a spending plan, thereby prompting many people to think of it as a fuzzy PR stunt that fails to coordinate with other efforts already in place.

It’s clear that important people care about the well being of youth, but their strategies just don’t quite hit it off with the young people. There is a TV show, however, that has resonated with a lot of young people both inside and outside of the screen. It’s Cheongchun FC Hungry Eleven.

The 16-episode show from KBS is many things at once. It is a reality show in which soccer players try out for and play on the Cheongchun FC soccer team. It is a documentary that records the journey of young men and their mentors over several months. It is a work of staff whose expertise is in the variety genre. They worked with former soccer star Ahn Jung-hwan to organize a soccer team that consists of players who deserve a second chance: amateur soccer players who are trying hard to advance their career and once promising players who have discontinued soccer due to unfortunate circumstances.

Chief producer and director Choi Jae-hyeong was approached by Sportizen, which had recently acquired the Belgian soccer club AFC Tubize, with an inquiry: would he be interested in creating a show in which contestants would vie for spots on the AFC Tubize team? Feeling that the competition format placing emphasis on winning and losing would create another occasion for disappointment for young people, he chose to document players’ growth throughout the process rather than their winning or losing.

I did not start watching the show until much later because I was skeptical. The creators could talk all day about their genuine intentions, but at the end of the day, there would be those who didn’t make the team or those who made the team but did not stand a chance of joining a professional club. The clear winner was the network who would cash in on the hope and drama of the disheartened youth. There were so many real instances of young people hitting the wall already. Why make a TV show? Then, on a whim, I watched the very first episode one weekend and realized that I had been shortsighted.

I thought about why this show was so much fun to watch:

  1. Soccer is often fun to watch.
  2. It’s informative. You get to see the different components that make a soccer team possible such as coach, trainer, and team doctor. It walks you through the different tests that players go through. Since Koreans usually don’t play organized sports as children or teens, this part was interesting. You also learn that multiple leagues exist within Korea.
  3. Stories that shine on personal growth are often interesting. The show’s meticulous focus on the process rather than the result is effective. A TV show isn’t some almighty god that can guarantee a bright future for everyone, but it can create a series of special moments that prompts people to see themselves in a different light.
  4. Refreshing to see normal people who don’t wear thick makeup or dress to the nines on television. I love looking at fashionable celebrities but normal people in sweats look just as fine.
  5. You get to learn about each player really well. While some got more air time than others, the creators tried very hard to capture each individual’s story and show how those narratives fit in with the larger story of the current generation of youth.
  6. Awesome coaches. Ahn Jung-hwan’s communication skills, man. He makes it sound so easy but I think about how hard it must have been to address these young men in a way that would encourage them but also ground them in reality. Ahn and his long-time buddy Lee were great mentors.
  7. Great choice of background music that resonates with youth, illustrations of the soccer players that show how much the players are appreciated, and the overall lack of busy pictures and loud sound effects that are variety show staples.

Cheongchun FC

On the show these players are offered a chance to wholly focus on soccer but their post-show future is uncertain. This uncertainly initially made me uncomfortable because it would remind me of the uncertainties in my life and their reach on me. I was overwhelmed by Cheongchun FC’s energy, however, and the sense of joy and liberation they provided. The uncertainty makes you nervous but it begins to seem negligible next to the excitement that the players show while playing soccer.

Some players didn’t get to play on the field as much as the others and some had to stop playing because they became injured. Those moments were crushing, but the show managed to capture the notion that all these players went for what they loved and tried their best despite the uncertainty, and the wise coaches who have been through it all were in place to guide them.

The creators and the coaches were thoughtful and the young athletes were full of personality and mature. Instead of sending out a forceful, charismatic message like”Choose well. Choose now,” the show throughout captured the most ordinary yet powerful of words of the players themselves: This is the most fun I’ve had playing soccer. Since we are all soccer lovers, our paths will cross some day.

Gestures acknowledging that young people need room to grow, try, and bounce back speak to them. There is something to be learned from Cheongchun FC Hungry Eleven.