Crisis continues to engulf the Korean FA after the perceived poor performance of the national team. After only recording a single point from their three game the head coach and the Vice-President have both departed in farcical circumstances, yet the fallout continues to rage on.
Upon their return to Incheon airport the team were greeted with the sign ‘Korean football is dead’ and infamously hailed with ‘yeot’ toffee, a sign of insult. Although the two men responsible for the welcoming are not wholly representative and were seen as shameful by many Koreans, it set the scene for what was to come.
A great deal of public anger did focus on head coach and legendary defender Hong Myong-bo. The 2002 bronze ball winning captain was accused of picking players he was close to regardless of poor form and a lack of fitness. In particularly Arsenal misfit Park Chu-young, who failed to register a single shot in the entire tournament from the lone striker role, was seen as one of Hong’s favourites. Veteran goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong also faced criticism, and alongside Park was eventually dropped for the last game against Belgium after poor performances.
Upon his return, Hong offered his resignation to the KFA. In front of the gathered press, Vice-President Huh Jung-moo announced: “I don’t think Hong’s resignation would have solved the problem so we decided to continue to trust him… I am sure Hong will lead the team well at the Asian Cup.” A week later both had gone.
The departures though do nothing to solve the key questions at the root of Korean football. Since the incredible success at the 2002 home world cup, expectations have been unrealistically high for a team ranked 56th in the world. The mood in Korea when the draw was made was optimistic that the team could qualify from a group that put them against Belgium, Russia and Algeria, while many outside the country viewed Korea as the weakest of the four. The speed in which public opinion turned against Hong, regarded as one of Korea’s best and most popular players, is a worrying sign of the inflated demands of the coach and his team. The greatest outcome of this world cup may be the bursting of the bubble.
The overall set up of the Korean FA is also under question, especially the selection process for the national coach. Why was a coach appointed who had only coached at international youth level? If the plan was to appoint a young and learning manager, why did he only last a year in the job? The KFA is seeking to combat the criticism by increasing the powers of the technical committee to appoint the next coach, a plan which began by the reform of the committee this week. However, with the Asian cup coming up early in 2015 and only six friendlies before then, pressure is mounting. This choice not only has to be the right one, but it has to be a fast one.
The debate over the next coach is centred on an ongoing question since 2002: Foreign or domestic? 43 percent of Koreans say they want a foreign coach while 39 percent they would like a Korean coach, according to a Gallup poll taken in the wake of Hong’s resignation. Since the Guus Hiddink reign in which the team made it to the semi-finals of the world cup, the KFA has tried to replicate the success with four mercenary foreign coaches, three of whom were Dutch. All lasted around and year and left generally unloved by the fans. However the memory of Guus continues to linger and the lack of success with the last three domestic candidates may push the KFA to go abroad once more.
However it will take more than a onetime appointment to bring back success to the Taeguk warriors. Although Korea has some strong youth talent nearly all spent their most important development periods abroad. Bayer Leverkusen star Son Heung-min for example was poached by Hamburg at 16 from his high school team and was given the opportunity to develop at a much higher level. The nation’s top division, the K-league, was plagued by a betting scandal in 2011 and remains fundamentally weak. Teams play each other four times a season and the vast amounts of money available in the Chinese league is now threatening to draw more talent from abroad and take away K-league dominance in the Asian Champions League. In a recent press conference Park and defender Cha Du-ri spoke of the need for the country to focus on developing the national league to better nurture the players needed for another successful run at the world cup, calling on people to show more interest. However most football fans in Seoul are much more focused on the top European teams, and competing with the excitement of those leagues will prove very difficult.
There remains great potential that could be tapped into if the conditions are correct. Korea has been the most successful Asian nation over the past ten years and it is the number one ranked country for the next World Cup qualification period despite this year’s poor performance. Football still is highly popular amongst the population and the facilities left over from 2002 are still more than sufficient. There is still a good base to work from and bounce back.
It is now vital to learn from the mistakes and take advantage of the potential that exists. However if reforms to the structure of the KFA don’t go ahead, if the expectations from the public continue to be over-inflated and if the K-league remains weak, then it is likely the 2002 success will fade into the distant past. Time is running out to capitalise a generation that became obsessed with football during the home World Cup, and failure to deliver success may mean Korean football will drift into obscurity.