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.


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.