The USA is not a world power in football, ostensibly because our best athletes play where the money is: football, basketball, and baseball. For years, American fans have lamented, “What if our best athletes played soccer?” In a delightful and amusing series, The Gentlemen’s League provides an answer from South Korea.
In a variation on this theme, the series creators don’t lift players from major sports, but instead they gather national athletes from sports you might never have heard of. This gives the athletes a chance to promote their sport, but of course it also means they aren’t going to require big salaries. In fact, it is very unclear whether the players are paid at all, although a Korean friend assured me they are.
Another tweak to the concept is that the players are mostly retired from their sport. In the original first season of this series, they utilized older retired athletes largely in their 40s and 50s, but the team lost almost all of its games.
In this Season Two, the coaches develop a team of 30-somethings to play soccer, with the goal being that they win “titles” across South Korea. Each episode is 2 hours long. The first half of the episode is the team building and training that make up the variety show component. The second half of each episode is a game against opponents from around the country.
Season Two kicks off with studio auditions, where the applicants showcase their sport along with their individual personality, physique, handsomeness, and any soccer skills. Based on the votes of 4 judges (the 2 coaches plus the 2 variety show hosts), the applicants advance to a team tryout.
A fascinating aspect of the series is the view into South Korean culture. Five players are returning from Season 1, so they serve as a panel during the auditions. They don’t get to vote, but they wear microphones that capture their whispered comments and surprise reactions. South Korea is a country with one of the highest rates of cosmetic surgery (similar to Brazil), for both men and women. In that environment, the players commonly remark on the applicants’ good looks and physique.
It seems that South Korea is such a small country, that everyone has just a few degrees of separation. Often the applicants have attended the same elementary or high school as panel members or met them at the national training center.
Other cultural aspects are year of birth, the respect for elders, and compulsory military service. In relationships, players reference year of birth, and even if someone is only a few months older, they are respected as an elder. More respect is also given based on where and in what role someone served their military duty.
Another fact: if you want to really celebrate someone in South Korea, rent a food truck.
The cast as of Aug-2022
The variety show presenters Kim Sung–Joo and Kim Yong-man do the match commentary, where they are as much fans as they are broadcasters. The pair have a content company, Mung Chin Project, with Manager Ahn and Jeong Hyeong-don, who participates as a judge in the first audition. It feels like the MCP principals have a lot to do with how the series is made, but I never figured out who actually produces or directs this series, or who is the club owner. However, I did discover that these principals, the other 2 coaches, and some of the players concurrently participate in other variety shows.
One of the charms of the show is the team spirit, the good-nature, and the perceived innocence of the players. You think of them as teenagers and forget that they are in their 30s. Even though the players compete at everything, they are gentlemanly and mutually-encouraging in competition. I guess it is the opposite of the Squid Game and Parasite.
The athletes on the team include gold medalists and current/former Olympians. They represent kabaddi, volleyball, tennis, karate, mixed martial arts, tae kwon do, judo, triathlon, swimming, fencing, lacrosse, basketball, wrestling, windsurfing, rugby, luge, nordic, skeleton, ski jump, and speed skating. In my house, our favorite player is the Olympic triathlete Heo Min-ho.
|3||Lee Hyung-taik||Tennis||Season 1|
|4||Lee Jang-kun||Kabaddi||crushes watermelon with his thighs|
|5||Kim Yo-han||Volleyball||Season 1|
|6||Lee Ji-hwan||Karate||dodges tennis balls|
|8||Kim Dong-hyun||MMA||Season 1 GK|
|10||Mo Tae-bum||Speed skating||Season 1|
|11||Park Tae-hwan||Swimming||Season 1|
|15||Andre Jin Coquillard||Rugby|
|20||Heo Min-ho||Triathlon||most versatile player|
|22||Lim Nam-kyu||Luge||most soccer experience|
|63||Kang Chil-ku||Ski jump||Son look-alike|
|79||Park Je-un||Nordic combined|
|--||Yoon Dong-sik||Judo||exited after ACL|
57 episodes and still counting
Watching this series has been feel-good entertainment during the pandemic. But as with the many series flooding the streaming world today, the time investment to watch all the episodes has been detrimental towards my watching other soccer movies.
I have not finished watching the entire series on Netflix. I am on my 57th episode, and I don’t know if this series is ever going to end! I wanted to make this my 400th review, so I decided to publish now, even though I normally wait until I have watched the entire series. But I’ve already been watching this series for 9 months, so enough is enough.
What if our best athletes played soccer?
First of all, these players are world class athletes. It was amazing to see them all play high level recreational soccer within several months. After the basics, the coaches fine-tune technique and teach tactics and mentality. Manager Ahn also arranges matches to develop his team, scheduling challenging opponents they can learn from as well as easier opponents to build confidence.
Ahn also brings in National Team players to guest coach, and of these I thought Woo-yeong Jeong to be the best, showing players how to use change of pace to throw off defenders. He currently plays in the Bundesliga.
It is really interesting to see how an athlete’s main sport takes advantage of or further develops certain physical traits. Some of these traits transfer to soccer, such as speed, endurance, balance, and for the GKs, hand-eye coordination.
For example, the wrestler is difficult to bump off the ball. The winter sport athletes (luge, speed skating, and more) are fast with good endurance. All the players’ technical skills advance pretty rapidly, which I attribute to general coordination and fast muscle-twitch genetics. The hand-eye coordination of the volleyball and tennis players makes for good goalkeepers.
There are some truly impressive but weird moments, such as kabaddi athlete Lee Jang Kun crushing watermelons between his thighs. Another example is former USPTA player Lee Hyung-taik holding 8 tennis balls in one hand and hitting them at karate medalist Lee Ji-Hwan, who dodges them about 20 feet away. As you watch the series, you notice that Ji-Hwan has exceptional body control.
So, would the USMNT be better if our best athletes played soccer? Would we win the World Cup? This series has convinced me that it would make no difference if LeBron, Tom Brady, or their like had played soccer. Our best athletes are already dedicated to the beautiful game. We just need to appreciate them more.
The Gentlemen’s League excels at entertainment and instills a love of the game. The cultural aspects made me a fan of South Korea and left me with a desire to visit the country. Almost every episode left me smiling.
There are 10-15 episodes that are useful for coaching tips and drills. I meant to catalogue them, but I didn’t take notes while watching. Sorry about that. Watch the series and learn.
BTW, my Korean friend says that there is a similar series utilizing female athletes. He says it’s even better than The Gentlemen’s League.
This is my 400th review!
Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 10
- Released: 2021-08-08 (JTBC Korean TV)
- In Korean with English sub-titles
- This series seems to be known under many different names
- Let’s Play Soccer
- 다벤져스 appears to be a phonetic spelling of the word “avengers”
- 어쩌다 벤져스 뭉쳐야 찬다 the literal translation is “somehow the avengers must unite to kick”
- Not on IMDB
- Director: Unknown
- Stars: Ahn Jung-hwan , Lee Dong-gook , Cho Won-hee
- JTBC Website and JTBC Youtube channel
- Series on Netflix