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Trailblazing 'Ji Messi' leads South Korea's World Cup hopes

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Seoul (AFP)

Chelsea midfielder Ji So-yun's experience of playing in Europe could prove an invaluable asset for South Korea when the Women's World Cup begins later this week.

Nicknamed "Ji Messi" by fans who regard her as the female equivalent of the Barcelona and Argentina great, the 28-year-old is South Korea's record scorer with 54 goals in 115 appearances.

Ji started playing football at school aged seven, but had to train with the boys as there was no girls' team.

The trailblazing Ji became the first Korean woman to play professionally in England when she made a high-profile move to Chelsea in 2014 from Japan's INAC Kobe Leonessa.

Ji's first season in London was a success as Chelsea, who had struggled near the foot of the table in 2013, were transformed into title challengers.

- English title disappointment -

She netted nine goals in 19 appearances in all competitions but Chelsea ended up being pipped to the Women's Super League crown by Liverpool on goal difference.

Ji won FA Women's Player of the Year at the end of her first season in England and made it a Chelsea double at the Professional Footballers Association awards when she collected the Players' Player of the Year honour alongside Eden Hazard.

"When I first moved to England my goal was to get myself known," she said in a newspaper interview in 2017.

"But I still had a lot to improve so I was very surprised when I was told I won the award in my first year with Chelsea."

Ji's first World Cup appearance in 2015 ended in a disappointment. She injured her thigh in her 2-1 group game win over Spain, and had to watch on as France eliminated Korea in the last 16.

"That was one of the hardest moments in my recent years," Ji said. "It was painful not to be able to participate because of the injury."

Ji will get an early chance to avenge those memories when the Taeguk Ladies face tournament hosts France, who are ranked fourth, 10 places above the Koreans, in the opening match on Friday.

She knows what she will up against, having recently faced many of the French squad when Chelsea played Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon in this season's Champions League campaign.

"The South Korean squad has nothing to lose," Ji said in Seoul before leaving for pre-tournament campaign in Sweden. "A surprise is quite possible."

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