Expat soccer school looks abroad

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jul 15, 2015 - 18:34
  • Updated : Jul 15, 2015 - 18:34

The temperature hitting 37 degrees this Saturday could not deter the teenagers of Sillim from turning out for a game of soccer as part of International Football Education’s community outreach program.

Set up seven years ago, the expat-run soccer school runs a regular program for over 400 players, mainly from international schools, coaching them in club-level soccer, after-school programs and tournaments.

In recent years, the nonprofit aspect of the group’s operations has motivated founder Phil Nieland to look beyond regular coaching.

Along with community outreach coordinator Mariano Zuk, Neiland has been active both in South Korea and abroad, including community projects here and in Southeast Asia and a drive to donate soccer-related goods to Kenya.

Kids and volunteers pose at a tournament for migrant children from Myanmar in Mae Sot. Hiroshi Kanao

IFE grew from the efforts of Neiland to connect with his students as an English teacher. Neiland, who played semiprofessionally in Ireland, seized upon the chance to use soccer as a way to engage young Koreans with the world around them.

“It became a way of connecting and developing relationships, and then I saw this as an opportunity, and it blossomed from there,” he says.

The weekend program in Sillim for disadvantaged children began last year with the help of local group Mustard Seed. The twice-monthly sessions for disadvantaged children are intended to not only provide a fun outlet for the students, but also to provide exposure to English and interaction with foreigners, opportunities that are not as readily available to these students as those in the primary program.

In December this year, the efforts and enthusiasm of a few lucky students will pay off, when IFE takes a team of athletes under 12 years old from Sillim to Bangkok for an international tournament. The team will experience a Thai homestay and meet other players their age from all around the world. This will be the first time they have taken a group from the volunteer program abroad.

“Now we’ve taken players abroad in the past … and I saw that as a wonderful learning opportunity,” said Neiland. “But the thing is, is that a lot of these international kids have traveled all over the world, they’ve had this opportunity. These guys haven’t. So I said okay, well we’ve done it before, now let’s give them a chance.”

IFE is also looking toward working in Thailand, where Zuk currently resides. Hearing about a program starting up in Mae Sot, a small town on the border with Myanmar infamous for its role in human trafficking, IFE got involved, and is collaborating with Play On Side to host a soccer festival there at the end of August.

“There’s a lot of at-risk youth caught up in this system. So we’re there to try to help them. … And we’re using (soccer) as a vehicle for that,” said Zuk.

“So we’ll go there and we’re going to do a clinic. We’re going to coach the local players, we’re going to coach some local coaches, Burmese and Thai, about how to teach, because this program is about developing character as well as football. Not coaching to win, coaching to develop.”

IFE’s unique approach to coaching goes beyond teaching soccer skills, and emphasizes education and social development. In cultivating an English environment wherein students can become more confident about the language, and incorporating international travel, Neiland hopes to inspire students to “think global” in their ambitions.

“If you give them this opportunity, they will hold on to it, and make something of it. So this is what we’re trying to do, give them a chance,” he said. “And who knows what can happen then. Maybe they realize their dreams are possible. This is what we want to create.”

The group has also been sending donations of sports clothing and equipment to Kenya in partnership with International Sports Peace Foundation.

To volunteer, donate or get involved in fundraising for International Football Education, visit

By Louisa Studman, Intern reporter