Ji So-yun epitomises the word cheeky.
Be it an audacious pass, an outrageous piece of control or persuading Emma Hayes to reschedule training to enable her to watch the New Year’s Eve fireworks, the South Korean midfielder could pull if off with an effortless, infectious charm.
“She’s probably one person who could get away with anything with Emma Hayes,” Ji’s former Chelsea teammate Karen Carney told 90min.
“I was asked as captain to try and see if we could get training moved back on New Year’s Day and Emma just went: ‘no’. And Ji came in about 10 minutes later and was like: ‘manager! I want to go and see the fireworks and I need my eight hours sleep. If I get the last train and you have training, I won’t get my sleep and I want to go and see the fireworks – can we put training back?’
“And Emma just went: ‘yeah, no worries Ji’, and pretty much said: ‘when do you want to come in’? And the whole team were just sat there like: ‘she could literally get away with anything’.”
Hayes first saw Ji play when Chelsea faced Japanese side INAC Kobe Leonessa in the final of the 2013 International Women’s Club Championship in Tokyo – Hayes was blown away by her ability inside the first 10 minutes.
“I’ll never forget standing on the touchline and I turned around and said: ‘she’s ridiculous’,” Hayes recalled. “I’ve never seen a player like Ji in the women’s game. She’s left such a massive stamp on my heart. She is an Emma Hayes footballer.”
The playmaker made the switch to Chelsea in 2014 in what was a landmark deal in the WSL at the time, with overseas transfers then a real rarity.
Her impact on the league was instant. Ji scooped the WSL Player of the Year and PFA Players’ Player of the Year during her debut season in England, and was simultaneously feared and revered by opponents.
“On every scouting report it was like: ‘stop Ji, stop Ji’,” recalled Carney, who was plying her trade at Birmingham at the time.
It was the prospect of playing with Ji that helped persuade Carney to leave her home club for Chelsea in December 2015, meaning she had the simultaneous pleasure and struggle of coming up against the diminutive midfielder everyday in training.
“She’s so strong, like she’s so tiny but she’s ridiculously strong,” Carney added. The former England international was speaking to 90min at Wembley ahead of Sunday’s FA Cup final, fresh from a visit to the Chelsea Foundation, where she spoke to children about mental health awareness week and dealing with cup final pressures.
“In training you wanted to be on her team; if you weren’t on her team you were always losing and it was disheartening because you couldn’t get the ball. If you had Ji on your team you knew you were winning, if you didn’t have Ji on your team it was a miserable day.”
Chelsea were trophy-less upon Ji’s arrival, but the midfielder netted the winner in both the semi final and final of the 2014/15 FA Cup as the Blues got their hands on their maiden piece of silverware. It opened the major trophy floodgates, with a flurry of 11 following over the next seven seasons.
“Now I think about it and I think ‘oh my goodness, that was so significant’,” Hayes said of the 2015 FA Cup triumph. “It was the catalyst for everything that, and Ji scoring that goal symbolises what an amazing era it’s been for us as a football club.”
Fittingly, Ji will bow out of English football against Manchester City in the FA Cup final at Wembley on Sunday – the same stage where she kickstarted Chelsea’s trophy avalanche seven years earlier. There will be fireworks.
Don’t miss out! Watch Chelsea vs Manchester City in the Vitality Women’s FA Cup final this Sunday. Visit thefa.com/ticketing, tickets available now.