Within the four walls at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground, Ji So-yun is described as “universally loved.” As the 31-year-old understated hero of a South London dynasty prepares to bow out of English football on the grandest of stages this weekend, no one player has had a bigger influence on her team’s success over an eight-year spell in the FA Women’s Super League.
Ji leaves with four FA WSL titles, two Continental Cups, and (for now) two FA Cups. There is no doubt she is one of the best to grace these four shores, the best to pull on a blue shirt, and when combining outright talent, success, and longevity, potentially the greatest foreign import the league has seen to date.
The beauty in the South Korean star’s success, though, is she has remained somewhat in the shadows. While she speaks perfect English, her media footprint has remained almost untouched, the same today as it did when she arrived at the start of 2014, fresh-faced and unknown to both peers and rivals alike.
The creative midfielder, who Chelsea head coach Emma Hayes described as a “little genius” after she scored the winning goal that secured her side’s place in the first FA Cup final to take place at Wembley in 2015, arrived in England already a heroine back home where she’d won multiple individual honors and been a nominee for World Player of the Year. But in an age in which women’s football was still growing, Ji was an untapped, unknown, and an unfulfilled mystery halfway across the world.
“She had a big impact on me when I first met her,” said Takayoshi Ishihara, the manager of INAC Kobe in Japan at the time Ji was at the club. “When she came here, she was only 18 and then only 21 when I became the coach.
“She made a big difference. She couldn’t really do the defensive work at that time, she just wanted to attack. Homare Sawa was a big mentor for her, she learned a lot from Homare here when they played together.”
A quiet personality, Ji lived with two Japanese teammates while at INAC, Nahomi Kawasumi and Yoko Tanaka, both of whom Ishihara claims “helped Ji a lot” and helped her to study and learn the Japanese language.
“She started to have much more communication within the team. She was very smart, once she learned the language she really started to settle in.”
At the end of 2013, INAC took part in the second edition of the International Women’s Club World Championship, where continental champions from each corner of the world came together for a tournament held in Japan.
As fate would have it, UEFA Champions League winners Wolfsburg decided not to attend in the middle of a busy Bundesliga season and were replaced by Chelsea, which was in its offseason at the time.
After both sides reached the final, Ji put in a player-of-the-match performance, scoring as her side beat Hayes and Chelsea 4—2 to lift the title, and kicked off a series of events that would lead the South Korean sensation to Cobham.
“I’d spotted her before that,” recalled Hayes. “I was about to start a job working for New Jersey just before WPS [Womens Professional Soccer] folded. I went on tour with Jim Gabarra and the team and we took a team over there and left two players behind who went on and played for INAC.
“That’s how I always knew about Ji. In 2013, we played Sydney and a young Sam Kerr and we beat them and ended up playing INAC. I’d kept in touch with the two girls there and they always raved about her. I knew once we’d confirmed what we already knew it was a no-brainer — what a player.”
With scouting networks nowhere near as advanced as they are in the women’s game today, Ishihara says there had never been an approach from Chelsea before that match, but that Ji’s performance put her firmly on the radar at just the right time, as the FA WSL side was just beginning to invest heavily in their women’s team, and Ji was just the starting point Hayes was after.
“She had always been quite interested in Chelsea,” recalled Ishihara. “But they hadn’t really been one of the big women’s football clubs up until that point.
“She doesn’t have a father, only a mother. She felt a need to support her mother who is on her own in Korea. I think salary had a lot to do with it, she sent money and still sends money back home for her mother.”
Ji’s selflessness, quiet nature but absolute ability to be “hilarious” as people at Chelsea describe her, paints a vivid picture of a star who perhaps doesn’t realize she is just that.
She also doesn’t forget her roots. When Ishihara visited London in 2018 to watch Chelsea, Ji took her former head coach out to a restaurant and shopping around the city for the day.
When she arrived at Chelsea at the start of 2014, she instantly made a big impression on her new teammates, as former Chelsea and England defender Claire Rafferty recalls vividly.
“I didn’t go to Japan because I’d done my ACL, but I remember the girls talking about her,” she said.
“She changed Chelsea Women. It was like, ‘This is the standard,’ and if the rest of us are not at that level, we wouldn’t last. She didn’t speak much English at the time, but she didn’t have to, she could communicate without having to say a great deal.”
For Hayes, starting to piece together the beginnings of a squad that would go on to become the biggest force in English football, making Ji a central figure of her team was an easy decision.
“Watch that game, she destroyed us. The goal she scored was the least of our problems. She was unbelievable. I never forget standing on the touchline and four minutes in I turned to Paul [Green] and Stuart [Searle] and said, ‘She’s ridiculous.’
“I’d never seen a football player like her. I almost couldn’t believe it. I think if she’d been in Europe at the time she wouldn’t have been at Chelsea, she’d have been at Lyon or somewhere like that, she was that good.”
Rafferty added: “I remember the players talking about her. She’d ran the show, and I think when we signed her not a lot of other people knew about her, so credit to Emma for that.
“Ji had been promised this team was going somewhere or else she wouldn’t have come, that’s how I viewed it. If we were signing players like that, this is where we’re going, so it was exciting, it felt like the start of something.”
For someone so understated, Ji has always had a penchant for popping up at the biggest moments, and her contribution to getting Chelsea off the mark can never be underplayed.
In the semifinal of the 2015 FA Cup, Ji scored the winner that sent her side to the first Wembley final, following it up with the first goal to be scored at the national stadium in a women’s cup final, the only goal of the game.
“It felt right for me that she scored,” recalled Rafferty. “I have that picture in my room of her and Eni [Aluko] doing the knee slide and me coming in struggling to keep up!
“She scored a free kick the year after against Man City and whenever I see her score a free kick I laugh because I know she doesn’t practice them. She just had it in the locker. She just had such a natural-born talent, you just watched her play and went ‘Wow.'”
Recalling the goal that won Hayes and Chelsea their first trophy and kick-started an era of success that still lasts to this day, the current head coach remembers it like it was yesterday and hopes a player who has enjoyed such an affinity with the FA Cup can leave one more mark on it come Sunday.
“Now I think about it and think, ‘Goodness, that was so significant,’ but at the time I just wanted to win badly for the club, I wanted them to have a moment they could live with forever.
“Did I know when we would go on to achieve what we’d have now? I didn’t even think I’d still be here! I didn’t think this would be a long journey, but that was the catalyst and Ji scoring that goal or me symbolizes what a great era this has been for this club and I hope we can do that again on Sunday.”
Ji’s settling-in period to a new country, continent, and lifestyle was aided by the fact Chelsea at the time also had Japanese international Yuki Nagasato in their squad, and privately there were concerns about how Ji would find life in London when Nagasato left for Wolfsburg at the end of 2014.
Nagasato would regularly frequent the same quaint coffee shop in Cobham, closely followed around by a homesick Ji, but the South Korean went on to flourish and become one of the more outgoing members of the group, even if she remained somewhat of an enigma to those outside her bubble.
“She has so much personality and is just smart and intelligent,” said Rafferty. “She also knows when to pretend she can’t understand what you’re saying!
“She was just cheeky and funny. She used to pretend she didn’t understand you even if she did. She settled, there’s a big Korean community in the area, her agent lived in the area, I know she was always happy in England, she just fitted in.”
Over the course of the next eight years, Ji would regularly contribute goals and assists and played a huge role in her team’s success.
She scored against Sunderland in the game Chelsea won their first league title at the end of 2015, and in 2019 scored a last-minute free kick to dent the title hopes of this weekend’s opponents Manchester City, who she has scored six goals against during her time in England, more than she’s scored against any other club.
That record only emphasizes how often Ji has been the player for the big moment and why her arrival symbolized the start of a dynasty for both her, her teammates, her manager, and her club.
She could have gone elsewhere, with even European giants Lyon once coming calling for her services, but both player and club turned down any unwanted advances. Ji was Chelsea and Chelsea was Ji.
“Without trying, single-handedly she changed the team and changed Chelsea,” admitted Rafferty. “She knew she was good. She wasn’t insecure or coming here to prove a point.
“She had a confidence that meant the language barrier didn’t affect her. She could actually be a bit of a moaner in training. Not in a bad way, just very cheeky, always asking if we were playing a match because she just wanted to play, to get better.”
After Sunday, Hayes will never again be able to call upon the services of a player who has contributed toward the greatest period of success the club has ever seen.
While it would be a very Ji So-yun trait to bow out by having some sort of say in Sunday’s showpiece final, Hayes believes her legacy could even go further than that.
“She wants a statue,” she laughed. “That’s all she keeps saying to me and I keep telling her she deserves one. I’ll go on record and say Ji So-yun deserves a statue — easily. She is the best player to wear a Chelsea shirt to date.
“We just took an opportunity at the right time. It was right place, right time, but she is easily one of the best players I’ve ever seen. Genius.”