Defining Korean football in 2015: Asian Cup and the road to redemption

15 for 2015. That’s what we’re calling this series; for the next 15 days until the new year, drop by daily for the Tavern’s take on the moments that defined Korean football this year.  All the Tavern writers will be contributing to the 15 for 2015!  First up: The Asian Cup and Korea’s road to redemption.

Despite the fact that Korea efficiently bossed around the local competition for most of 2015 and remarkably conceded the least amount of goals for a national team this year – a metric that seems hard to believe, one must first put 2015 in perspective – that is you have to remember 2014, a year Korea would much rather forget.  Crashing out with a mere point in the group stage of World Cup in Brazil = frustration and much soul searching among the players and staff and supporters in tow.

Dark clouds was just beginning to part just 2 months prior to the Asian Cup, with a hybrid U23 KNT squad winning the Asian Games gold medal in football. The squad (sans Son Heung-Min, who wasn’t released by Bayer Leverkusen partly due to Champions League fixture conflicts) earned military exemption and a much relieved Park Joo-Ho and Kim Jin-Su returned to their respective Bundesliga clubs.  Timely for Park as he was originally scheduled to return to Korea later that year to begin a 2 year military service obligation.  The gold medal allowed him to resume his European career (where he is now on board a resurgent Borussia Dortmund).

The negative mood towards Korean football however remained largely intact as the new year began, what with the World Cup fresh in people’s minds.  Hong Myong-Bo, the hero of 2002, had endured heavy criticism post World Cup and eventually was sacked, replaced by a retired Real Madrid midfielder, Uli Stielike a few months earlier.  Questions were raised regarding the former Germany youth coach and concerns about how well he could perform on this level. The backdrop of uncertainty set the stage going into the 2015 Asian Cup, relatively high stakes for the KNT and it’s new untested manager.

Keep in mind, Korea had won the Cup, but only it’s 1st and 2nd editions of 1956 and 1960. Since then, it’s been the prize that’s eluded Korea for 55 long years.  The last Asian Cup adventure for Korea in 2011 ended in bitter defeat to rivals Japan after a grueling deadlocked semifinal (not to mention highly controversial with a botched refereeing decision regarding a PK taken by Korea late in extra time).

After a shaky start in the group stage saw Korea grind out 1-0 wins over the likes of Oman and Kuwait (with Cho Young-Cheol as Korea’s center forward!?), Korea would finish top of the group with a better performance against hosts Australia (as it would turn out in hindsight, an ironic victory). Korea was starting to gel, gain confidence and the nation back home began to take notice.  The buzz now surrounded that of an unlikely new hero in Lee Jung-Hyup, a relatively unknown young Busan I’Park striker serving his military duty at Sangju Sangmu, at that time relegated to the 2nd division of the K-League. Whatever Stielike saw in the young man, his risk taking in selecting Lee paid off handsomely as his scrappy goal netted as he lunged forward on a Lee Keun-Ho cross was enough to win against Australia, but Korea still had concerns coming to the fore. The paucity of goals in the group stage was one, but a crisis emerged as both Koo Ja-Cheol and Lee Chung-Yong were injured badly in the group stage. Korea was forced to confront the fact that the duo were unavailable for the rest of the tournament.

Son Heung-Min, out with the flu during much of the group stage, recovered in the nick of time, a pair of goals late in extra time finished off a difficult-to-break Uzbekistan. He wasn’t the only hero.  Leftback Kim Jin-Su was magnificent. After he picked the pockets of a defender deep in Uzbek territory, Kim deftly launched a cross – Son lurking nearby instinctively latched his head onto the ball. The keeper managed to get a hand on it but not enough to keep it from rolling past the line. Talk about another amazing storyline developing, Cha Du-Ri, who was controversially not called up for the World Cup 6 month prior, this time was called into action. Taking over for Kim Chang-Su at rightback, the former Celtic man turned on his beast mode, continually bombing down the right flanks and sowing fear, chaos and havoc for the frazzled Uzbek defenders.  It was like we were witnessing his swan song, his last tournament in KNT uniform with looming retirement on the horizon. The old man, the son of the legend Cha Bum-Kun, still seemed like he had something to prove. He gave it everything he had. The 2nd and last goal was the exclamation mark of his career, getting past one, two, three, confronting his 4th defender by audaciously nutmegging him, blew down the right flank and flawlessly teed the ball at a sharp angle to find Son. He settled the jittery ball and with enemy defenders quickly closing down on him, Son’s shot blasted the top netting -almost searing it off to seal the victory..

Before anyone knew it, shocking news: Japan crashed out in their quarterfinals to UAE.  So did Iran – crashing out spectacularly to Iraq, thus setting up semifinals between Korea and Iraq. The road to the title match was nearly at and end and a Cup that had been missing for 55 years was within sight.  A perfunctory 2-0 win and preparations was set for what would become the highest attended and most watched televised Asian Cup finale in history: a rematch showdown for the title between hosts Australia and Korea.

Despite going down early 1-0 against the run of play and conceding for the first time in the tourney, Korea kept on fighting, and demonstrated a never-say-die performance to find that elusive equalizer.  Korea had to find a way to get back. With Taeguk Warrior supporters the world over biting their nails, 90 minutes had signaled they were just about out of time when suddenly a breakthrough – one of those moments forever frozen in time and etched in Korean football memory: Ki threaded a pass to Son Heung-Min and then…magic. Eruption. Elation, Euphoria. Hope. The game was heading into overtime.

But then tragedy.  Kim Jin-Su, who had been so vital for Korea throughout most of the tournament, adding brilliance with each passing game, committed a deadly mistake at the end of the 1st overtime.  Attempting to be clever with the ball while defending near the endline, he coughed up the ball, and suddenly the loose ball was crossed, deflected, and wound up in the back of the net.

Sometimes the best stories are the heartbreakers. This one certainly would qualify.  Ending the 55 year drought would have to wait a little longer.  As in 2011 for Lee Young-Pyo and Park Ji-Sung, who would retire at tournament’s end, Cha Du-Ri also sadly concluded his national team duty in tears – so close but no cup.

But that’s not the end of the story. Let’s rewind a bit, and remember the KNT’s return to Korea following the 2014 World Cup, some blowhards waiting at the airport threw humiliating yeots at the squad.  When the weary team returned to Korea after the Asian Cup, this time they were greeted as heroes. Overall, the demons that haunted the 2014 World Cup squad, namely horrific defending, gave up that ghost by conceded the least amount of goals in the tournament, including a shutout that lasted every game until the finale. There was better goalkeeping on display. The domestic based players were becoming more in sync with their European based counterparts (the European based players like Ki were actually healthy rather than battered and bruised before the 2014 World Cup). They turned around their low goal scoring numbers, eventually finding ways to score with better efficiency. Resilient to the end. If they had lost their mojo in the World Cup, they got it back again Down Under.

The nation was riveted during this run in January regardless of the title match loss. It was a performance that regained the goodwill of the Korean public. In short, it was a remarkable short turnaround rehabilitation of the KNT’s image, both at home and worldwide. More importantly, it gave a valid reason to conclude that there was indeed positive momentum going forward for Korean football.  It would become the start of a very good year indeed.

 

 

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Extra Time: I’d also argue that there are hidden benefits to going all the way to the final yet not winning the cup. For one, it allows people to note progress without giving a false impression of a completely successful turnaround. Not all is right with the structural football environment in Korea, but another story for another time.  More to add and more to come with #14up next in the Tavern’s top 15 for 2015.  Until tomorrow, ddo bo-ja!

Extra Extra Time: If I could, I’d have included ex Tavern writer Jae Chee and his contract gig with the KFA to translate articles as part of the15 for 2015, but he’s very humble about it all.  Nevertheless, I was very excited for him and have read many of his translated work, including match recaps for the KFA’s English mirror site (here’s a link to Jae’s translated recap of last month’s KNT WCQ win against Laos last month).  I did a Q&A interview with him, which I’m including in this late edition of this post.  Stay tuned for more 15 for 2015 as Jae will also be a guest writer contributing to that series.  For now I leave you with our Q&A:

 

Tavern Owner: Merry Festivus!  2015 marks a special occasion, the year the KFA made an excellent choice in hiring you to do translation for the KFA English mirror site.  You may think this is no big deal, but I don’t. 2 part question –How did this come about?  Being bilingual, in the future would you want to be writing both original content in addition to translating for the KFA staff writer on hand?
Jae: “Hired” is probably too strong a word. I’m just a simple contract translator. How did it happen? Shortly before I left Korea (in September) the KFA contacted me through Twitter and asked if I’d be willing to do the occasional translation. They had seen my Twitter account and the SKS Blog. Of course it would be awesome to be able to write my own match reports and news articles, but I’d have to go back to Korea for that.

Tavern Owner:  Cynical folks may say, only Koreans follow Korean football -most read Korean – why bother translating. Why do you believe it’s important to offer translated KFA articles, national and international game recaps, and other news worthy in English language format?

Jae: Well, it’s a bit of a ‘chicken or the egg’ thing. Produce English content to get non-Korean fans or get non-Korean fans and then produce English content? Can you get foreign fans without English content? The answer is yes, but having “official” English content can make the process faster and better in my opinion. There is growing interest in Korean club football and Korean players who have gone abroad. Sites like The Tavern and K League United are great, but sometimes people want “official” news from official sources. The barrier to accessing this information is high given the relatively small number of Korean-English translators and the relative low quality of translations from Google Translate and the like. Clubs regularly update their pages with how the overseas players do over the international breaks and any “FIFA virus” incidents, so being able to quickly get that info is important. Plus with some big name players about to come through, Lee Seung-woo, Paik Seung-ho, and then eventually Jang Gyeol-hee and Lee Kang-in way down the line, there will be a lot more foreign fans who will be looking for stuff on them. It makes sense for the KFA to get ahead of that and be ready to take advantage of the situation when it comes.

Tavern Owner: When visiting the English KFA site, one can actually see the Reader Count in the upper corner of each translated article. You’ve indicated on Twitter that the KFA constantly need reminders of why translation services on their webpage is still necessary – do you continue to make that case now?

 

You can actually see the reader count on both the Korean and English sites. Why the Twitter reminders? Well, it’s business 101 really. Page views are the simplest and easiest way for a company to see that the webpage is getting them a return on their investment. In the early days when I started translating some of those posts were only getting 20-30 page views. After I started tweeting the links they went up to 100-150 depending on which team was involved. Looking now, most are around 500 or so views. So there is demand for these articles. Is it still necessary? I would say yes. Check the English page and you’ll see the last article is the translation I did for the women’s senior team’s 1-0 loss to Australia at the end of November. Check the Korean site and you’ll see that several articles (interviews with Stielike, U-15 team, Olympic team, and more) have been released in Korean. I realize the KFA has a budget, and that probably not much was slated for the English site, but it’s important for overseas/non-Korean speaking fans to make sure that the KFA knows they’re there.

 

Tavern Owner: Good luck and look forward to reading more. By the way, sorry about Busan I’Park being relegated. Well, there’s a first time for everything, right?

Jae: I’m actually not too bothered by Busan’s relegation right now as it is a good time for them to clear out and get their act together. I’ll be quite annoyed though if management continues to act and move forward in the same bumbling/half-ass manner that they’ve been doing. 

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