The Fate of Football Managers in Korea


Yes, dismissing Claudio Ranieri was completely disgraceful, yet it was the reality of modern football. English football especially has always been about producing short-term results and some wonder if the recent increase in wealth in the Premier League has given clubs the luxury to start replacing managers in short cycles. But it’s not just the EPL managers who face the fate of losing their jobs. The problem is just as severe in the Korean League where money isn’t as bountiful as the Premier League.

The Korean League, simply referred to as the “K-League”, is divided into two professional leagues: Classic and Challenge. For the 2017 season, K-League Classic saw four teams out of twelve replace their managers. Challenge, on the other hand, suffered even greater turnovers: two teams from last season completely withdrew from the league (Goyang and Chungju), six teams replaced their managers, and two brand new teams entered the league (Ansan and Asan). Only Suwon FC and Gyungnam, out of the ten teams in Challenge, kept the manager from the previous season. More than half of all the teams in both leagues (12 out of 22 teams) started the new season with a new manager. Sadly, the numbers get worse if we include managers replaced in-season.

system comparison

Why is it that teams are replacing managers so quickly? Is it the forthcoming system pressuring teams to perform? Is it the relationship between the manager and club owners? Is it the pressure from the fast-growing and cash-strapped leagues in China and Middle East? Whatever the reasons may be, we will never get the full picture, but by examining how club administrators work with managers in the Korean League compare to those in the Japanese League, we get a general idea of the existing problems in the K-League.

Seoul E-Land of Challenge for instance closed the contract with Martin Rennie and his coaching staff mid-season in 2016. Rennie was pressured to promote the team into Classic in his first year in charge of a brand new team. And for failing to promote the team into Classic, he was asked to leave only after 18 months in office. Martin Rennie was an exciting recruit to the league, having plenty of experience in the MLS with Vancouver Whitecaps. He was tipped to bring a unique Western footballing influence into Korean football. If only he had more time to adjust to the Korean league and assess his team’s potential promotion to Classic, he may have truly seen his work bear fruit. 

KunHa Park replaced Rennie mid-season. Seoul E-Land’s results for that second half of the season improved with Park in charge. The team won 11 games, drew 8, and only lost 4. K-League Challenge doesn’t have relegation yet, but Park had successfully turned the table around for a struggling E-Land side. Everyone expected coach Park to lead the team for the new season, but he was dismissed at the end of that season. The club’s statements for his dismissal was simply “to start fresh with the new club executives.” Talk about an outrageous comment. Poor decisions from the club continue to hinder the club. Seoul E-Land is currently (5/29/2017) sitting 9th out of 10 teams with just two wins in 13 games. Now leading the team is a coach from the U-League (University-League), a first-timer to the professional league. We do not know for sure how secure his job is, but the club has grandiose plans – its website lists as one its goals to become Asian club champions by 2020 (win the Asian Champions League). 

What can the K-League sides learn from this Japanese team? Since 2010 for seven straight seasons, Shonan Bellmare had gone up and down in the first and second division in the J-League. The team only won 7 in 34 games and was comfortably relegated to the second division in 2016. Despite its inconsistent performance in the J1 League, Cho Kwi-jae continues his management since 2012. Experiencing two promotions and two relegations during his regime, he could have easily been sacked by the standards set in modern football, but the club, acknowledging his leadership qualities, gives him full assurance that he’ll be given time to build his team. Shonan Bellmare is sitting third place out of total 22 teams in the second division, ready to be promoted again and challenge the first division.

Sir Alex Ferguson says the support from the club administration played a significant role in the development of a football club. In his book, Leading, he describes the support he got from the club owners and executives as a ‘privilege’ that a leader needs and must have. The fact that he was free from an urgent pressure to produce immediate success enabled him to concentrate on building the basis for the long-term generational success of Ferguson’s teams.

This is the culture K-League needs to inherit – developing a working relationship between the club administrators and coaching staff, together setting realistic goals, together taking time to move up the ladder one step at a time. And as Korean football system experiences more change in the upcoming years, teams must live up to the challenge of strengthening the cooperative relations between the club administrators and the coaching staff.