Never say die. That seems to be an essential component in any KPA (Korean players abroad) in Europe handbook. Nevertheless, some Korean players with undeniable talent has had to retrace steps back to Korea (in recent years notably Cardiff City’s Kim Bo-Kyung, Hoffenheim’s Kim Jin-Su and now Borussia Dortmund’s Park Joo-Ho); it demonstrates that talent alone isn’t enough to manage all the mitigating factors to sticking around football’s toughest and most competitive professional environment. The European adventure has many gauntlets for the foreign player, including having to adapt to different languages and cultures – and we haven’t even gotten into the footballing aspect with styles of training, regimes, tactics and language needed almost right away to be in sync on the pitch.
It is here we are in complete awe of one Suk Hyun-Jun for the remarkable footballing journey he’s had, the baller with 9 lives. Of all the Koreans playing abroad, he exemplifies the never-say-die attitude and has lived it by miraculously saving his career from footballing purgatory, not once, but several times over. If anything, he is legend for having the moxie to walk right into Ajax, the birthplace of Johan Cruyff, and asked for a trial with then head coach Martin Jol in October 2009. It is a rare thing for a club to simply sign a player based on a walk in trial, but that’s exactly what happened next and Jol signed up the 17 year old relatively unknown footballer from Chungju, with a 2 year pro contract starting January 1st of 2010. His first Eredivesie match came in February 3, 2010 – and you can see in the grainy youtube below, Suk had a nervy rite of initiation. He was very much a raw product, but you could kind of make out what Martin Jol was possibly thinking in signing Suk – at 1.9 M (6 ft 3 inches) he had vertical height to give defenders pause at every set piece. For someone tall, he had a good bit of pace and some nimble footwork to compliment. He came in as Ajax enjoyed a comfortable 3-0 lead, got a few touches in, nearly assisted his then teammate Luis Suarez (yes, that Luis Suarez), the future Liverpool and Barcelona forward eventually did score Ajax’s 4th goal – and that was the exact start to Suk’s journeyman adventure.
He kept training with the team, nabbed a goal against Chelsea in preseason the next summer.
Suk, however, didn’t make enough waves to make a lasting impression and left for Gronigen the following season. He scored this outrageous overhead goal for Gronigen in a preseason friendly against Sunderland in 2012 (Peace Cup in Suwon):
After 5 goals in 27 appearances, he transferred to Portugal’s Maritimo where he had a bit part in their 2013 season, registering 4 goals in 14 appearances (including the only goal in a 1-0 win over Sporting).
It was in the summer of 2013 where Suk Hyun-Jun first fell off the radar, with a move to Al Ahli in Saudi Arabia. Players from Europe move to the Middle East for a variety of reasons, but often they don’t return back to top flight competition – where quality of competition isn’t exactly world class. This was not to be Suk’s fate and he managed his first comeback, transferring to another Portuguese club, CD National. His half season wasn’t necessarily spectacular by the numbers, but coaches in the league were taking a look at the tall ‘Zlatan’ like figure and thought he might be a fit with their program. January 2015 saw Suk with another horizontal transfer and he packed his bags to move to yet another Portuguese club, this time Vitória de Setúbal. An impactful 5 goals to end the season, the following 2015-2016 season was the breakout moment of his career: a blitzkrieg 11 goals in just 20 appearances in the first half of the year, Suk was cresting in the Primeira Liga – including “an unstoppable free-kick only four minutes into a match against Braga.” Several Champions League clubs in Portugal came calling but it was Porto that won the transfer market game for Suk and he made yet another move in January 2016, his 4th club in 3 years –this time the biggest vertical leap in his short career.
You can see in the video highlights from his time with Setubal, Suk making strides and fulfilling some of the potential that Jol initially saw at Ajax, an attack with a variety of weapons at his disposal.
January 15, 2016, Suk made his move to Porto but his integration into the club was gradual – then came to a grinding halt with the sacking of then manager Jose Peseiro in May of that year. Suk spent time in the summer training with the Korean Olympic squad as a wildcard overage player. Along with Son Heung-Min, they sought out an Olympic medal like their 2012 compatriots to get military exemption and a lifeline to extend their footballing careers. But after scoring 3 group stage goals against Fiji and Germany in the Brazil 2016 Olympics to advance to the Round of 16, it all came crashing down with a 1-0 exit to Honduras. Suk returned to Porto and to an uncertain future. He was immediately loaned out to Trabzonspor on a 1 year loan, but the spell in Turkey was unsuccessful, no goals in 10 appearances. A transfer halfway in the season to Bastia was signed by Porto but didn’t materialize when administrative paperwork wasn’t transferred in time, that according to French media. Out of Porto’s plans for the rest of the year, an unglamorous transfer in February saw Suk play out the rest of the season at Debrecen – located in Hungary. In other words: football purgatory.
It’s not necessarily the end of the road if a player finds himself in Hungary, but it is a far outpost in the footballing galaxy. Many get lost in this wilderness. It was for players like Ryu Seung-Woo. After a scintillating U20 World Cup performance, he wound up crossing to Europe and found himself at Bayer Leverkusen. His path diverged from Son’s and Ryu managed some loan spells to get playing time – eventually those loans took him to Hungary (Ferencváros) and it is here he disappeared, only to re-emerge at Jeju United on a free transfer last summer.
Suk had virtually disappeared at Debrecen, a lonely goal in 13 appearances. Many, including yours truly at the Tavern had written him off as Asian players only get so many chances to succeed in Europe. But it was with a mixture of surprise and nervous excitement to hear late in August – just as the transfer window was closing – that Suk had somehow managed a loan to recently promoted Troyes AC in Ligue 1. Despite not much to show for his time in Hungary, Troyes had a hunch that he could be a good fit to their chances – for Suk and for Troyes, it was a return to top flight football. No guarantees, just a chance to show the footballing world once more what was in Suk’s locker.
Verdict? As 2017 comes to a close, Suk has astonished France with 5 goals in just 10 appearances -and along with Dijon’s Kwon Chang-Hoon, Suk has garnered positive press in French media as a ‘new’ revelation in the league. He made the best of his chances when he got them, and that’s the best way to describe Suk’s remarkable story thus far.
His 5 goals in the first half of the season includes a cheeky brace against Monaco and a goal against Dijon featuring his KNT teammate Kwon Chang-hoon. Here’s a summary so far:
Could it take him all the way back to the senior KNT squad? He found the back of the net 4 times in 13 caps, including an enterprising goal produced against the Czech Republic, a 2-1 friendly victory in May 2016 (see below, goal set up begins 3:25 with a classic wind up and blistering strike).
Extra Time: anyone who’s followed Suk’s career knows that he’s adapted to his many different clubs and environments by absorbing local language and culture as quickly as he humanly can. One advantage: his english language skills is fairly decent. He prefers to use english as his go-to in interviews with media. However, you can look back to his older media engagements and see him speaking passable Dutch, and he’s had to interact in Portuguese and now in French. He’s reportedly taking in 3 French classes a week to catch up to the language de jour.
Still here? If so, that can only mean one thing, you’re sticking around for the great Tavern announcement to usher in 2018:
Several months ago when the World Cup qualifiers were winding down, there was a brief chatter that we at the Tavern, our writers / contributors were going out with a bang after the 2018 World Cup and ending the Tavern. I, for one, have transitioned to a new phase in life, juggling different projects, like freelance writing for my local newspaper, the Frederick News Post, as well as Subversive Zine (underground art/film/music in central Maryland), and documentary filmmaking – slowly filming a documentary on my dad’s side of the family escaping from North Korea during the war and how they managed to make it to the US. Korean football has been a huge source of inspiration, excitement and headache for a number of years. Starting the Tavern in late August 2012 was a loopy idea inspired by the 2002 and the more recent 2012 Olympic medal success, but it’s taken off to a degree that I couldn’t possibly imagine. I still regret not learning Korean, but I figured I wasn’t the only gyopo who followed the underdog exploits of Korean football with the scraps of info in English I could glean off the net. Following that passion that turned into the metaphysical Tavern and allowed me to connect with other writers and pundits and supporters -it was a whole new world that was endlessly fascinating. I thought at one time I could even go at it as a freelance writer, with a foot in the door at the New York Times and a long form article on Korea’s complicated military conscription and it’s deleterious effects on the Korean national program for In Bed With Maradona. Alas, not being bilingual cut off the biggest possible target to freelance to: Korean sports media. I realized that for the time being, the Tavern was strictly a passion project.
Long story short, I’m just about out of time to keep contributing to the Tavern week in and week out, especially with 2 kids to raise. That’s not a complaint, nor a grievance, it’s just the way it is.
I do not regret starting the Tavern, especially as I’ve shared the latest and greatest in Korean football news and analysis with you along with Tim, Jinseok, Jae and many others over the years, but I couldn’t figure out a way to continue the Tavern with the writers and contributors having lives of their own to navigate. It was time for closure. But like Suk Hyun-Jun, the end is not yet near.
There’s been a couple good ideas floated, but a surprise result: all the other writers/contributors rallied to the idea that they want the Tavern to continue beyond World Cup 2018. They would do so by picking up new contributors to carry onwards. Already the Tavern has picked up several new writers who have contributed with posts, some of them you might have seen in the 17 for 2017 series.
I suppose that’s the best compliment anyone can pay the Tavern, as a project it takes a life of it’s own beyond and outside you. There’s vision and passion I’m seeing from this newly constituted board, of current and new faces. Maybe we’ll even start a Patreon campaign to finally make things sustainable. I think it’s going to make it.
But as for the longer term prospects for Korean football, that’s far from certain. There’s been a steady decline in K-League attendances & TV ratings. Will younger kids feel this is a viable career path for them to pursue? Son and Suk face military conscription and an end to their European careers, unless they can be part of a winning Asia Gold team in August or even more unlikely – meaningful reforms to the military conscription system. And who can forget – there’s still World Cup 2018 to play for.
For K-League related items, we’re pleased that K-League United is holding it down & representing well in an English language format. We may collaborate on a drafting items that spells out substantive ways that the K-League can once again garner respectable attendances and TV revenue, improve on attempts to renew domestic football support to cultivate a new generation that will keep Korean football going forward. AND The new contributors, as I mentioned before, have some great perspectives and new lenses they’re bringing to the Tavern. That’s just one of several things to look out for in the future. As my laptop is gradually breaking down (literally as I type this), I look at the KNT and the Korean program as a rag tag crew on the brink of total disaster (see Korea v China), or en route to swashbuckling shattering of low expectations (see Korea v Colombia or more recently Japan v Korea in the E1 Tournament). It’s all part of the adventure. I can’t wait to see what’s around the corner.
Thanks for staying with the Tavern and we’ll see you in 2018. Happy New Year and proverbial drinks on the house for the evening! Chal ga-yo.