Korean football in crisis?

Aashish Gadhvi has some issues to get off his chest about the state of Korean football.

Its time to face facts, people. The golden generation is finished. The players are all overpaid, high-ego celebrities with more money than talent. The fans don’t get behind the team and no manager in their right mind would take the vacant position. Now enough about England, let’s talk about Korea.

Over the past few days both Mick McCarthy (above left) and Gerrard Houllier (above right) have turned down the vacant managerial position of the South Korean national team, and this has led to the Korean team being something of a joke amongst factions of the English media. They claim that the Korean national team is a shadow of its former self and takes itself far more seriously than it should. It’s almost as if the very idea of Gerrard Houllier being offered the job was sheer wishful thinking. Let me start by saying this: the state of Korean football is on the downward spiral at present. The National team underachieved during the Asian Cup, attendances at K-League matches are low and key players have been banned for drunken antics. As the team is in a transitional stage, the young players who are now coming into the team are not really shining as most had hoped. But, I would not say that the poor media treatment of Korean football is merited at all.

Seol Ki-hyeon after his transfer from Reading to Fulham
Seol Ki-hyeon (Fulham)

Korea has a relatively young football history, although it is one of the longest in Asia. Although the national team has been playing since the late 40s, the K-League has only been around since the 80s. Therefore it would be naïve for anyone to compare the K-League to the English Premier League. But nevertheless there have been those crazy enough to do so. Claims that the top scorers in the K-League consist of every nationality except one or two Koreans are the hands-down truth. But last season’s English Premiership top 11 goal-scorers consist of only 2 Englishmen, the exact same number of Koreans in the top 11 K-League goal-scorers of last season.

Of course the K-League does not compare to the Premier League in terms of attendance, but the two countries differ immensely on football views. In England, the Premier League only took off as a result of privatisation under the Thatcher era. Even then, it took time for football to become something that was ‘fashionable’, compared to the grimy reputation it had in the 80s, when attendances were low and hooliganism was what the stands were most known for. There are also two very different schools of thought between Korea and England concerning support in football. In England, club comes before country. In Korea country comes before everything. Yes, the 2002 World Cup had a lot to do with nationalism, and maybe the love for the country did overshadow the love for the game, but at least the love for the country was there for all to witness. Every man, woman and child got behind the Korean team in 2002, and the team responded. In England the fans and media love to hate. In some ways they love failure as it gives them something to moan about in the newspapers. Koreans may be guilty of blind nationalism, but the English are in no doubt guilty of blind destruction.

Lee Dong-gook (Middlesborough)
Lee Dong-gook (Middlesborough)

On the subject of the attendances, I would not say that having a larger attendance generally means having better support. The last two football matches I attended were Korea v Greece, back in February, and the recent European Championship qualifier between England and Estonia. The handfuls of Korean fans in Craven Cottage were screaming their lungs out from start to finish. At Wembley stadium, amongst nearly 90,000 people, you could hear a pin drop. There were even chants of “We’re supposed to be at home” from sections of the England fans. The Koreans have a culture of getting behind the country. Even if it was a chess match you would probably hear ‘DAE-HAN-MIN-KUK’ from sections of the crowd. With England, sing when you’re winning, and otherwise keep your mouth shut. Take the chaotic match against Croatia: all you could hear were Croatians. Yes, the Koreans are more into the country than the sport, but at least they are there in their numbers making noise and getting behind the team. I also fail to concede to the point that people make, that the 2002 World Cup was a one-off and the Koreans wouldn’t show that kind of enthusiasm again. Need I remind anyone who the most enthusiastic supporters in the 2006 World Cup (apart from hosts, Germany) were?

The final point I would like to comment on is the Koreans playing in England. I think this is one of the most ill-treated stories that anyone can pick on to highlight the failure of Korean football. Yes, Koreans have not really made a mark on the Premiership, but let’s look at the facts why. Seol Ki-hyeon and Lee Dong-gook are struggling at the moment at their respective clubs. Maybe this is my opinion, but I believe Seol did very little wrong to be sold at Reading. Although the reasons for his exit have been a bit blurred, with many pointing out that Seol was the one who wanted to leave, he was not getting first team football, which he deserved. Lee Dong-gook however, for me, is a tragic injustice. Lee Dong-gook is held very highly in the hearts of Koreans for his heroics for the national team, and his journey to Middlesbrough seemed a dream come true for him to fulfil his potential. Only one problem: he hardly ever played. He made under 20 appearances for Middlesbrough, scoring just 1 goal. However, hardly any of those appearances were full games, with most of them being coming on as a substitute. What is failed to mention is how he did play well every time he came on, making good runs and creating great space, and should have won a penalty against Manchester United at Old Trafford in a crucial game late last season.

Lee Young-pyo (Spurs)
Lee Young-pyo (Spurs)

Middlesbrough have now expressed their desire to offload Lee. To make matters worse, Lee even expressed his discontent at not playing enough football, and his desire was to get more football in to adjust to the pace and physicality of the Premier League. Didier Drogba took a whole year to adjust to the Premier League, and Andrei Shevchenko still hasn’t adapted to it. Yet Lee Dong-gook is supposed to perform miracles while being a substitute, and has been shown the back door now that he hasn’t performed. Absolute nonsense. Although his banning for drinking during the Asian Cup is inexcusable, his treatment at Middlesbrough has been almost as bad. Lee Young-pyo and Park Ji-sung however are interesting cases. Neither have really played badly for their clubs, and Park in particular was in sublime form before his injury, but since then neither look likely to be permanent fixtures in the team as both clubs have signed higher profile flamboyant players who play in their positions. Park may never play for Man United again now that Nani and Anderson are touting his position. Why is it that he will most likely receive the chop? Call this controversial, but my firm belief is that Asian players are simply not respected and are under far more scrutiny than others. If an Asian player plays slightly off-form he will receive the chop almost 100% of the time. Asians have to put in more effort to simply stay on the bench. No wonder they are an endangered species.

Korean football is in a very dangerous position at the moment. North Korea made a tremendous showing at the 1966 World Cup, then dropped off the edge of the world. The KFA have to make sure that the same does not happen to the 2002 semi-finalists. Korea need to qualify for the World Cup. They need to at least get to the final of the Asian Cup. Maybe Korea will never truly be a world-beating team in our lifetime, but is being the grand-daddy of Asian football really too much to ask? More importantly, the Korean people need to get behind the team and show everyone that 2002 isn’t a one off. I personally believe that Korean football can be better compared to Indian cricket. When they’re on form they can shock anyone, but most of the time they underachieve. The national game is far more important than the local games, and enthusiasm needs to be carefully nurtured. The KFA do have the potential to be the BCCI1 of football (the Indian cricket Board is the richest in the world, down purely to the fans’ enthusiasm of media consumption) and the evidence is in 2002. The best thing that the new manager can do is get results. Results mean success, and in a country where success means life or death, nothing can draw more people into supporting the teams, whether it be local or national. The writing is on the wall for Korean football. Now we just need the Korean people to fill in the blanks and prove to the rest of the world that Korean football is not a laughing stock.

Park Ji-sung (Manchester United)
Park Ji-sung (Manchester United)
  1. That’s Board of Control for Cricket in India, not Bank of Credit and Commerce International []

3 thoughts on “Korean football in crisis?

  1. Thanks for the insightful article. Whilst I am English, i always end up supporting Korea simply because their enthusiasm for their team is so catching.
    Its sad to hear how Asians are sidelined this way 🙁
    I really enjoyed the korea vs greece friendly in Feb also and had the pleasure of taking a Korean friend who had never been to a match before. He loved it and really got caught up in it too!

  2. Given the somewhat precarious state of business ethics in Korea, it would not surprise me if the KFA turned out like the Bank of Credit and Commerce International…

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