When I first found out Korea were again coming to London to play a friendly against Croatia I was determined to report the match for LKL in the way I had done for their previous friendlies. This also reminded me of the training session the team had prior to the Ivory Coast friendly which I was fortunate enough to report on. So no doubt I wanted to get down to this training session too. After I found out the venue where they were to be training I set out on a mini adventure. Address? Check. Sat-nav? Check. Petrol? Check. Freezing cold conditions? Double check.
Despite the best efforts of my sat-nav to land me in a ditch, I made it to the venue. The leafy and serene Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre was every bit the elite training centre fit for a national football team. It was also the training centre for some Team GB athletes during the Olympics. It looked a classy establishment too! After spotting the Korean journalists I mingled amongst them and waited for the coach to arrive. When it did eventually the entire team was present.
It is always something of a privilege to be that close to my favourite football team. This was now the second time I was able to get this close to them and watch them train and I couldn’t help but think of what an enviable position this was. The team now was a very different one to the previous teams. It was filled with many younger faces, some of which were now established European players. Talents like Koo Ja-cheol, Son Heung-min and Ji Dong-won were already well known as were veterans Lee Dong-gook and Park Chu-young. Of course the most well established of the team in England: Lee Chung-yong was looking sharp as ever in training. This was a great sight considering the problems that his team Bolton Wanderers have had a troubled season, not to mention him missing most of last season with a broken leg and the shocking heart problems on the pitch suffered by team mate Fabrice Muamba.
I managed to have a quick chat with Lee Chung-yong after the training session. This was the second time I spoke to him and not surprising he was as polite this time as he had been the previous time. I asked him first about this problems at Bolton and how he has managed to overcome these issues. Football can at times be a game of luck and the sequence of events which had befallen him and the club have been some of the most testing of any team in England. He replied ‘We had a change of coach mid-season and we’re performing quite well but our results haven’t been good but I think we’re going to improve by the end of the season’. Seeing as Bolton are now placed 17th in the Championship they will have to change things drastically to have any hope of going back up. I couldn’t help but wonder what personal tolls last season had on him with the departure of the head coach Owen Coyle and the incident of Fabrice Muamba. ‘The situation with Muamba created a lot of difficulties in the team but thankfully Muamba is recovering and he’s now in good health. As for Owen Coyle I thank him a lot for the opportunities and shared a lot but we have a new head coach and we have to think forward’. Lee flourished under Owen Coyle so it’s no surprise that he misses his former mentor.
The number of Koreans in the English leagues now stands at five with Park Ji-sung and Yoon Suk-young at QPR, Lee at Bolton and Ki Sung-yueng and Kim Bo-kyung playing for Welsh teams Swansea and Cardiff respectively. I asked Lee what kind of relationship all the players had together. ‘We are personally very close friends and it’s great to have us all here together. Also all of them are playing very well at the moment so it will help the national team improve’. The FC Seoul team that him and Ki Sung-yueng were part of became the stuff of legend in terms of the players they produced. Lee and Ki were a popular midfield team while playing for the club and they’re friendship was a big story in Korea. I wondered how much of that still existed considering how much time had passed since then. Lee even seemed really pleased to get a question like this, no doubt not many non-Korean journalists have ever asked him about those times. ‘Yes we are still great friends! Sometimes we meet up and now that we are both here we share a lot of stories about the past from FC Seoul. We have a lot of good memories to share’.
When I interviewed Ki Sung-yueng some time ago I asked him the same question and at the time Ki had just moved to Celtic in Glasgow. At the time Ki replied that the two haven’t had much time to talk due to their busy schedules, but it’s nice to hear that they are still good friends. As a final question to Ki during that interview I asked him if he listened to Girls Generation, so I couldn’t help but get in a cheeky question to Lee this time round! What else could I ask him but if he knew the Gangnam Style dance? His answer was clear and he even replied in English, ‘Yes I know it!’ I couldn’t get him to give me a few moves but you can’t help but hope it will be a goal celebration one day.
As the players were walking off back to the coach it seemed Koo Ja-cheol had got himself into some mischief with Ki Sung-yueng and Park Chu-young at which point a chase ensued and ended in a short wrestling match that WWE would have been proud of. Again the thought came into my mind that other Korean football fans would probably love to see this. Footballers, as I have often stated have become vast characters of ego, which is why seeing something like that brings them right back down to earth. Everyone seemed happy with the training and all in all it was a good day. Hopefully they could put into practise what they had learnt in training against Croatia. And hopefully my sat-nav won’t try and put me in a ditch again on the way home.