Guus Hiddink returns to Korea?!

Korea’s last game in the final qualification round against Uzbekistan ended in a blank score and Korea had narrowly avoided being dropped out of the Russia World Cup. There was something about the ambience on the pitch; not many were thrilled to celebrate the nation’s ninth consecutive qualification. Players were “trying” to celebrate and knew they were still far from winning the fans’ trust and support. It has been said by Lee Dong-Guk, the most successful and experienced player in K-League called up to the national team for the final two games under coach Shin, that he himself had a hard time trying to bear the pressure from the critics. When everything seemed forlorn within the KNT society, Guus Hiddink, the legendary hero of 2002 WC, swept the media away the following day. And as a result, the year 2017 ended in a hectic, chaotic way in the KFA administration office. What happened in the Hiddink saga this past September?

Not even a day passed after securing a spot in the Russia WC. A spokesperson of Guus Hiddink Foundation announced: In June, after the dismissal of Uli Stielike, Hiddink made an offer to manage the Korean national team if citizens of Korea desired such a move. The offer made in June was revealed to the public three months later in September. With ongoing problems with the KNT, Hiddink seemed to be the answer to KNT’s current misery and to many frustrated fans. Surely, he could be the one to rescue Korean football, the fans thought.

Returning home from Uzbekistan, the KFA’s new technical director, Kim Ho-Gon, was bombarded with reporters asking to explain the truth behind Hiddink’s offer in June. Kim made it clear that such an offer was never made and stated that there wouldn’t be any activity on Guus Hiddink’s potential recruitment. Finally defending the current manager, Kim expressed his displeasure by complaining about how Hiddink was making such a statement in this point in time when KFA had already chosen Shin Tae Yong as the successor of Uli Stielike.

However, what seemed like a rumor was proved true. The GH Foundation held a press conference to clarify the interaction it had with the Technical Director. The foundation confirmed it had contacted Kim Ho-Gon about the head coach position after Stielike’s sack. This was corroborated by a text message that was sent to Kim. Hiddink respected KFA’s decision to stay with Shin Tae Yong and most importantly offered once again to help in any way possible.

After the press conference, the media focused on Kim Ho-Gon’s denial of the initial interaction. Demanding truth, fans pointed fingers at Kim for deliberately lying to the public and asked him to step down. By this, Kim admitted the interaction with Guus Hiddink and confessed he did not find the offer appropriate at that time.

When it seemed as if the situation could not get any worse in the office, KFA was hit with corruption charges exactly eight days after the Hiddink incident. Twelve officials and employees were indicted for misappropriating the organization’s funds. According to Seoul Police Agency, these officials had misused the fund in 220 occasions, spending more than $100,000 for their personal gains in flight tickets, golf outings, pubs, and hair salons.

What could have been a simple conversation dealt comfortably between KFA and Guus Hiddink turned into a mass media explosion that shook the entire Korean football industry. Kim has since left the organization for the chaos exposed to the media and fans have had enough of the misery caused within Korean football.

Endless corruption and poor management from KFA continues to negatively affect the national team, and as the 2018 WC draws near, there is no time for any more disruption. KFA needs to straighten its relationship with Guus Hiddink and put an end to more media leaks on Guus Hiddink. In addition to his offer to help, the Dutchman asserted in the press conference that something needs to be done to improve the current national team. In response to the offer, KFA needs to approach this in a professional matter by either clearly stating ‘no’ if it thinks he would deter Shin’s work in the team or ‘yes’ and create a position that best fits his contribution. This is the process KFA needs to make quickly and wisely. On top of these legal issues, it has been a busy end of year in the KFA office and we cannot allow any of the KFA corruption to slow down the national team’s rebuilding process.


The Stielike Era Ends – Takeaways from Uli Stielike’s failure

It was a matter of when. The first defeat against Qatar in 32 years finally triggered the sacking and the German was dismissed from Korean football this past June. The 3:2 loss in Doha meant Korea conceded more than 2 goals in 3 games and, for the first time, lost 3 games in the final qualification round and failed to win a single away game. Wins were unconvincing, draws were frustrating, losses were humiliating; Uli Stielike ’s KNT (Korea National Team) was far below expectations on the pitch. Off the pitch, he spoke of controversial claims that exacerbated his relationships with players, coaching staff, fans, the KFA (Korea Football Association), and even the media. After 33 months in charge, more than any previous KNT manager, his contract was terminated. Yet Korean football fans’ anger and skepticism has grown bigger than ever before. Demonstrations against KFA resulted in personnel change in the administration office. And today, the KFA and the KNT sit under immense pressure from the critics. Despite qualifying for the 2018 Russia World Cup, too many fans have lost their trust in the team to perform in Russia. After poor preparation that led to shocking results in the 2014 Brazil WC, the KFA went ahead wasting another 4 years of time. Here, we reveal what to take away from Uli Stielike’s failure.

There were questions as to if he was ever competent for the position. His failure with the KNT makes sense after all, given his mediocre coaching career: short spells in Switzerland, Spain, and Ivory Coast. His teams remained fruitless and tedious. He was far from winning trophies or playing attractive football. His coaching capabilities certainly weren’t the reason why he was hired. What did Lee Yong Soo, then the Technical Director of KFA, see in the German coach that gave him the final nod? It was his time spent with the golden generation of German players that won the 2014 Brazil WC. In the early 2000’s when German national team faced its own dark age, Stielike worked with different youth teams for six years and oversaw young German players that went on to impress in the WC a decade later. For this specific reason, Lee Yong Soo chose Stielike and expected him to not just take Korea to Russia but to develop a team that could leave behind a legacy in Korean football. It made absolutely no sense. Who hires a mediocre coach to lead the national team and ask to develop the youth system? This was the start of mass chaos.

The KNT cruised through the 2nd round of qualification scoring 27 goals, winning all 8 games, and keeping all 8 clean sheets. But the quality of play against the very weak sides – Kuwait, Laos, Myanmar, and Lebanon – was seriously concerning. Seeing every game as a build up to Russia WC 2018, the KNT was expected to put pieces together and outperform these teams. But the German and his men never managed to reach that point. Players seemed disconnected, they looked as though they were playing together for the first time. Meaningless possession around the back served no purpose and KNT relied heavily on set pieces to win games.

For strange and frustrating reasons, poor performance against the weak sides never caught the full attention of KFA and KNT coaching staff. The very first punch on the face was facing the mighty Spain that ended in a thumping 6:1 defeat. Moving on to the final round of qualification, Korea was not ready to take on teams who were prepared to penalize Korea’s innumerable weak spots and mistakes. Opponents threatened each game and playing in the WC in Russia was in serious doubt. Defensive issues lingered on. Players were playing out of position. No sign of team spirit or color or unity was visible from the Stielike team. Then there was the outrageous ‘Soria incident’, complaining that the loss in Iran with zero shots attempted was due to lack of players like Sebastian Soria, an Uruguayan forward playing for Al-Rayyan, and ultimately blamed Korea’s youth system, saying it was fundamentally weak. This caused an uproar in the media and fans reacted immediately. He also no longer had control over the dressing room. Watching long videos of John Cryuff during tactical sessions, players no longer had faith in their coach. As a ‘video analyst’ Cha Du-Ri joined in, but he was really invited to reconnect the dressing room to the manager. Sadly, the damage was too large to rebuild the bridge. From disappointing results to irresponsible player management, Uli Stielike drove KNT through one of the worst times in Korean football history.

Simply put, the head coach position is for a candidate with the strongest credentials with proven qualities of coaching. He must be a man on a mission to produce the results. It was never a position to worry about a nation’s football development and it will never will be. When Stielike needed to figure a way out of the current problems on the pitch, he was busy traveling around Korea giving his opinions on the youth system. It is quite a disappointment that KFA took four years to understand that the head coach position is for a candidate with successful experience and competent coaching capabilities. Carlos Queiroz of Iran football is a great example. First off, Queiroz was already a recognized coach, lauded by top managers around the world, including his former boss, Sir Alex Ferguson. He also had the character to fight against the Iran Football Federation. He was a man who did not allow anything to hinder his team from achieving success. Iran, ranked highest amongst Asian teams according to FIFA, has constructed a golden generation of their own by building the team around talented half-Iranese in Europe and successfully qualified for the Russia WC with great potential as a dark horse. Now there’s a strong belief in Iran football that Iran will remain strong even if Queiroz leaves in near future. This is the legacy that a head coach should leave behind, stimulating progress even after a leader steps down, this not only creates leadership continuity, but also growth continuity in the system. Fans never wanted Stielike to leave a legacy on strong youth system reformation.

In chaos and trepidation, coach Shin Tae Yong stepped in and was asked to revive the team and scrap a ticket to the WC. Since the summer of 2010, Korea has pointlessly appointed Korean managers, throwing them into a pit and asking them to find a way out. Players and coaches alike are valuable assets of Korean football. The KFA must avoid using Korean coaches in a panic. And most importantly, it cannot hire coaches like Stielieve ever again. Hiring he head coach should never be done on a short-term basis. It needs to learn from the JFA (Japan Football Association) when selecting a manager. It first filters out 3 to 4 coaches who best fit into their requirements. Then they take three to four years to build enough rapport with each of the nominees to minimize the possibility of a failure. Can KFA learn from the neighboring nation? Coach Shin Tae-yong has been impressive so far, but we cannot have another talented coach like Hong Myung Bo give up on a coaching career.

It takes me back to the unsavory ‘toffees incident’ on return home from Brazil in 2014. Uli Stielike was appointed as the next manager to lead the change in Korean football. ‘TIME FOR CHANGE’ KFA and Stielike shouted, but three fruitless years report to us that there was no change, but a greater setback, deteriorating even further behind. Hiring Stielike was a complete mistake. Even when he was on board, problems were never dealt in right manners, timing to bring in a new manager was missed, and KNT was very poorly managed. This is what happens when you don’t have a plan, a road map, for your team and what’s worse when you don’t bring in the right personnel.

Let’s finish with what Uli Stielike thought about his failure in Korea. Speaking to Dong-A Daily News, Stielike said Korean football’s biggest problem is that the KFA has no clear plan for the future and added that the organization only suffers when faced with unexpected difficulties because of poor leadership and management. Elaborating on the lack of goals and vision, he said there is no long-term plan, instead the picture KFA has contains only the next 2 games or the next 2 months. This is the kind of environment the KFA is creating for their national team coaching staff. Germany changed 3 managers in 20 years when Korea changed 3 managers in just 4 years. Uli Stielike’s departure this June remains as a reminder that KFA are laying their own grounds for failure.

When your best players are not your best players

“Korea, only nation in Asia, to become the sixth nation to advance to the World Cup for the 8th consecutive time”

The media is all about this record when no one, but few, dares to know. There’s really nothing valuable about this record when the team’s performance is hardly convincing.

NISI20160814_0012047959_web.jpgMore and more players picked for the national team are not playing for their respective club teams. Being called up for the national team means the squad has to prepare for the game in a short period of time. However when you have players who are short of game experience from lack of regular football, preparation is slowed down. Anyone who’s been a player will know how much not being able to play slows you down not only physically, but also mentally. The sad reality is that it’s also impossible to obtain this physical and mental aspect of the game through just hard training. A player NEEDS to get in the actual game. Coaches, speaking to the media, will confirm they will only pick players who are first-team members of their respective clubs, but they’re still partial to players who play in Europe – even if they’re struggling to break into the first team at their club. It tells you something about Korean football. The national team, for some reason, is forced to rely on these foreign-based players and has a small pool of players to pick from the domestic K-League. There’s a real dearth of quality players from Korean domestic football, which is the result of a poor coaching system and an ineffective league system, leading to less opportunity for all age groups and genders.

Joo-ho Park struggling at Dortmund

An answer to the question of why a player isn’t getting playing time is rather simple. He’s not good enough. What’s really hard to answer, though, is why Korean players, as a bigger mass, struggle with this issue. Coach Shin Tae Yong, who led the Olympic team to Rio, is very much concerned with this issue. He describes current Korean players as all around too robotic and that they are missing something special in their style of play. Because of this undistinguished style, coaches are rather forced to prefer the veterans. It’s time to correct this stereotyped idea that age is stopping young players from playing. They are only going to get their experience over the veterans when they are set apart from the norm. Marcus Rashford of Manchester United didn’t make his surprise Premier League debut against Arsenal last season because he was young. He was given the chance because he had the abilities which in turn made his potential that much great. That’s the world we live in, asking for striking expertise and competence.

Coach Shin Tae Yong at Rio Olympics

So the root of this problem is planted in Korea’s youth coaching system. How can coaches assist in developing a set of definite qualities into young players? Here, coach Shin stresses the importance of how coaches must learn how to help young players mature and sharpen their innate talents. There’s obviously a ton that goes into youth coaching, but coach Shin says, the primary focus should be on maturing their raw talents. Korean coaches are too focused, or rather, only focused on settling the fundamentals and executing tactics. That’s why Korean coaches prefer the veteran over the rookie. There’s not that much to compare besides the former having more experience. We need to criticize this ‘coach-centered’ coaching. And it just makes coaching that much harder. While perfecting the fundamentals and teaching them how to execute the team’s tactics, coaches are challenged to discover and implement creativeness to players’ natural talents. This is the direction of coaching Korea needs to take, differentiating players with their own unique abilities.

U-19 coach Ahn Ik-Soo

The U-19 coach, Ahn Ik-Soo, approaches the problem of players in late teens and early twenties not getting regular football at a different perspective. He points to the entire league system. No matter how talented you are at age 19 or 20, it’s true that you are more likely to spend more time watching the game than actually playing. But, let’s go back to Marcus Rashford’s example. Before Rashford broke into the first team, he didn’t just train with the first team. He had plenty of opportunities to keep playing for the reserves in the U-21 league, which we know already, is separate from the Championship, the second division. With this subdivided league system in Europe, young players are able to maintain and raise their real game experience and even work on closing down the gap between the regular starters. That’s exactly what Korean football is missing – a subdivided league system. The league system is shallow and does not account for the young players and even the women’s teams. Many players in early twenties are just entering the professional K-League, playing for their universities, or playing in the lower divisions of K-League. In each respective situation, young players simply don’t play because they are rookies. They don’t have an alternate solution for gaining game experience. Like European football, the KFA must develop better young players by reshaping the leagues under K-League and creating more opportunities for each age group and women’s teams to participate in.

Amazingly enough, the KFA has been working on a lofty goal of expanding Korean football league. The table below shows the current league system:

Division Level
K-League (Classic) Pro
K-League (Challenge) Pro
N-League (National) Semi-Pro
K3-League Amateur

KFA, partnered with Korean Olympic Committee, is mapping out a plan to subdivide the entire league system into seven different leagues.

Division Level
K1-League (Classic) Pro
K2-League (Challenge) Pro
K3-League (Advanced) Semi-Pro
K4-League (Basic) Semi-Pro
K5-League (National Best) Amateur
K6-League (18 District Leagues) Amateur
K7-League (142 Regional Leagues) Amateur

emblem_of_korea_football_association-svgStarting next year, K7-League’s 142 regional leagues consisting of 852 teams will begin their establishment. The government is supporting about $2.6 million, so each league will be allocated with about $18,000 to furnish necessary facilities and organize management for the league opening. Going with the new system, the KFA announced earlier this month that all divisions will now be introduced to the promotion and relegation battle just like the European league system. Now, any team from any league can move up and down in the system. Currently this system is only applied to two pro leagues – Classic and Challenge.

In all respects, this is exciting news to hear. The KFA is surely making a great first step in raising competition and widening the pool of players to pick for the national team by merging all the leagues and implementing the promotion/ relegation battle for both professionals and amateurs. This is also a great way to invite more amateurs to play, especially to those who couldn’t play up to the standard of pro or given up because of conditions of football environment in Korea. They can start enjoying football again and who knows, we might just see a Korean Jamie Vardy some day. It’s an open game to all.

It’s time for all of us to accept the current situation with Korean football and embrace the fact that Korean football has been poor in producing quality players which in return, worsened the competition in the national team. Coach Shin associates this poor line of production players with weak coaching system and asked for a shift from ‘coach-centered’ coaching to ‘player-centered’ coaching. On top of this problem, this overall problem of players lacking regular football is situated far more deeply than just the national team. Coaches of men’s U-23, men’s U-19, National Women’s team, women’s U-20 are all facing dilemmas with players lacking real game experience. The best players of Korea are coming to play for their country, but they are struggling to play regularly for their club teams. There’s more than just substandard coaching, Korea doesn’t acquire a robust environment for both genders of young players to simply play at their level. However, we’ve seen reports made by the KFA that changes ARE happening. Leagues are merging. Even though there’s still long ways to go to provide more opportunities for young players and even the women’s teams, these long-term changes on youth coaching and overall football environment should have gradual effects on Korean football in all levels and one day bring better performance from the national team.

2015 EAFF East Asian Cup: China VS. Korea Analysis

dsf    eastasiancup2015

The EAFF East Asian Cup, held every 2 years, is a regional competition played by top four of the East Asian countries. This tournament is not organized by FIFA so the teams in Europe are not obligated to send their Asian players to play for their countries. As a result, the teams are entirely composed of players who play in Asian leagues. The top four countries participating this year are S. Korea, N. Korea, Japan, and China.

This is a great opportunity for Uli Stielike, the head coach of the Korean team, to work with the young players, especially those who play in the K-League.

The first game against the host, China, was very positive. I honestly can’t think of last time Korea played this well as a team. Three things that I saw in the game were:

  • Very organized defensive shape that led to effective pressing

This was the most impressive aspect of the game. Korea exemplified a very good display on how to defend as a team. Pressuring together, closing down space together, forcing long balls, winning second balls, Korea was excellent defensively. This all starts with the striker who really begins the shaping. The forward #18 (Lee Jung-Hyup) was busy and ran tirelessly running left to right to keep Korea’s shape. Behind the forward, Korea placed four players who closed down space. Young midfielders did well pressing and winning the ball. Especially in the first half, China barely had an attempt on goal and hardly crossed over their half because they were forced to lump in long balls from behind.

  • Attacking has gotten better, but there’s always room for improvement

When you defend as a team, you’ll get the ball. The next step is keeping the ball and doing something useful. Unlike the Myanmar game, Korea was way more efficient with the ball. Most of the attack came from the right led by #17 (Lee Jae Sung).  Lee and #22 (Kwon) were really focused on moving the ball towards goal, making sure Korea was attacking! Still, Korea needs improvement in making sure the attack leads to a shot. Korea would do well moving the ball and starting attacking patterns, but the end of the attack was not satisfying.

Here’s a video of what that means.

  • Rise of K-League youngsters!

Several players were key focal points in Korea’s good moments.  Many recognized the work of #17 (Lee) and he definitely deserved the MOTM (Man of the Match), but #22 particularly caught my eyes. Resembling Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, he loves running past guys with pace and a low center of gravity. His awareness of his surroundings and mental speed in tight spaces were noticeable.

The key thing to watch over the course of this tournament is how consistent these players perform. Overall, very positive stuff from the young Korean team in which tells a lot about our K-League! I’ll be back again after Korea vs. Japan.

On the Road to the 2018 Russia World Cup

South Korea's German football coach Ulrich Stielike (C) speaks during a press conference to announce a South Korean squad for the AFC Asian Cup in Seoul on December 22, 2014. South Korea named a final 23-man squad for the AFC Asian Cup next month in Australia that is heavy with 17 players from overseas leagues. AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE        (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

After the humiliating performances from the Korean team in the 2014 Brazil World Cup, there has been a growing concern over the future of Korean football. Indeed, there was an urgent need for a change.

Today I want to write about Korea’s preparation for the 2018 Russia World Cup as Korea has been displaying positive signs since Uli Stielike took over after the Brazil WC.

One aspect that I love about football is that it requires very important qualities of ‘strategic planning’ and ‘discipline’ when it comes down to achieving your goals and getting to the place you really want to be in. However, many football associations and organizations seem to become very impatient with the fact that the process takes time and support.

Korean football needed to react to their mistake and accept all forms of criticism as it was clear that its 4-year preparation for the 2014 World Cup was lacking in many areas. It’s easy and fair to criticize the manager and the players, but I was particularly angry at the KFA (Korea Football Association) who also needs to take responsibility in Korea’s poor run of results throughout the preparation for the Brazil’s WC.

KFA made a huge mistake of hiring someone who was never interested in taking the role. The manager KFA hired even spoke clearly after the appointment that he’ll step down after qualifying to the WC. Here’s a manager who was forced to the job and who’s ultimate goal is qualifying for the World Cup. The team underperformed in the qualifications and narrowly saved a spot in Brazil with goal difference. As promised, he stepped down and a young manager was appointed with not even a year left to the first kickoff in the group stage. Although the new manager had great motives to change things around, he simply had not enough time to fully develop his management style, execute his philosophy, and build his team.

As disappointing as the 2014 WC was, KFA responded well and Uli Stielike has so far done a great job of restructuring the Korean team. I am very much thrilled to see how his team will execute its ‘strategic plan’ in order to achieve its ultimate goal in 2018. I also hope the KFA won’t have to find another manager. Having a manager who can commit for four years would foster the team’s motivation, ‘discipline’, and team spirit.