Cho Hyun-woo (Jo Hyeon-woo) will take the K League pitch in just a few hours as Daegu FC takes on FC Seoul. The stylish new Korean #1 left his mark on the World Cup with his stunning performances, giving him the undisputed title of the best goalkeeper in the Group Stage. However, Cho has made it clear that he dreams to go to Europe – and more specifically, the English Premier League. In an unexpected way, Korea’s meteoric rise in FIFA’s brand new ranking system may spell good news for Cho Hyun-woo’s England dream.
Obviously any piece with Cho Hyun-woo, England and transfer needs to come with two major asterisks. First, we don’t yet know if he will join the Asian Games squad as an overage player, and we of course don’t know if that team will secure military exemption this August. Second, because no Korean goalkeeper has ever moved to Europe, and very few players directly make the jump from K League to England, it’s important to recognize that a club would still be taking a major risk on Cho. Nonetheless, let’s put that aside for a moment.
FIFA’s New Rankings Model: ELO
As I reported yesterday on Twitter, Korea’s win over Germany was obviously very good for FIFA Rankings. It would have been in the current calculation model, explained here in a 2013 post by Jae Chee, but in a few weeks ago, FIFA announced that they would implement a new model, notably to counter the effects of “gaming” the system. Teams such as Poland, for example, would play no friendlies so as to not negatively impact their average, which ultimately allowed them to be seeded at the World Cup. And anyone who watched the World Cup would know that Poland was certainly one of the weakest teams at the competition.
The new model is heavily based off of a statistical model called ELO. Initially created to provide a ranking for chess players, ELO is an improvement off of the previous model in three major ways:
- a) it calculates a rolling ranking, rather than an average, which allows for a more accurate snapshot of “who is the best team in the world”
- b) it makes it harder to game the system, as doing nothing will not increase your average, but rather simply give you 0 points while other go up and down and
- c) it does not discriminate from confederation to confederation, meaning that AFC vs AFC games will not have some sort of artificial multiplier that makes it less meaningful than an UEFA vs UEFA game.
ELO takes into account the strength of the opponent and, in FIFA’s case, the importance of the competition. Teams win or lose the same number of ranking points after a match, and upsets are rewarded generously while victories over minnows result in very little transfer of points. In general, it’s a more accurate reflection of a team’s relative strength. Iran, for example, is 20th in the current ELO ratings, but 37th in the old FIFA model. Poland was 8th in the old FIFA rankings, but 21st in the ELO model. Performances at the World Cup justified Iran’s ELO ranking as well as Poland’s ELO ranking.
Korea 2-0 Germany – A Meteoric Win For the Rankings
The Korean Football part? Well, our defeats against Sweden and Mexico were expected by ELO, and didn’t penalize us that much. But the victory over Germany did give us a massive boost. This website has been tabulating the ELO ratings before it became cool, and shows that Korea gained 80 points after the win. To put that into perspective, it marks the third greatest upset in football history. While Germany dropped to 7th after the defeat, Korea shot up 20 places, putting them then at 25th.
T W E N T Y – F I F T H !
The new ELO-inspired FIFA model promises to be slightly different than the ELO model, but if there are enough similarities between the two, we can expect to see Korea find itself in the top-30 of international teams when the new-look rankings are announced this July. (This would be Korea’s best ranking since 2004, when we were still riding the points from the 2002 World Cup run.)
Does it matter? For most fans, probably not, but it’s good to see AFC teams reflected in a better light in international rankings. It always seemed a little ridiculous to find decent Asian teams hovering around the 60th place mark. And who knows, perhaps other countries will consider taking Korea seriously as a friendly option with this improved ranking.
Cho Hyun-woo’s English Dream and EPL Work Permits
However, when it comes to securing a work permit in the EPL, it absolutely does matter. At the current moment in time, it would be extremely difficult for a Korean player to secure a work permit in England. Here are the current rules, courtesy of the English Premier League’s Official Handbook:
EPL rules stipulate that a player hailing from a non-EU country wishing to secure a work permit needs to have played a certain number of games for the national team. Furthermore, a country in that is not in the rankings’ top 50 is ignored. At the present time, Korea is 56th, and hasn’t been in the top 50 for close to two years.
But in Cho Hyun-woo’s case, cracking the top 50 would be far from enough for him to be guaranteed a work permit. EPL rules further stipulate a requirement that a player applying for a permit must have appeared in a certain amount of competitive games for a national team in the past two years:Competitive games are defined as the FIFA World Cup and Qualifiers, the FIFA Confederations Cup and any A-Level Continental Cup and Qualifiers. At the current moment in time, 13 such games in the past 2 years fulfill that criteria and would constitute the reference period. Let’s see how Cho Hyun-woo does:
Regardless of Korea’s ranking, Cho Hyun-woo would not be able to sign for an English club tomorrow if he wanted – even if we ignored the military conscription issue. He only participates in 23% of competitive internationals. He simply hasn’t played enough for Korea, and would have to go in front of an appeals board – a complicated and convoluted process.
But Cho isn’t going to move this summer to an English club anyways, not least because of the Asian Games. Let’s say Cho wins the Asian Games, is exempt from service and finishes out his season at Daegu FC. He goes to the Asian Cup, where he leads the team all the way to the finals, only being rested for one game along the way. The reference period excludes any games before February 2017 and hypothetically is made up of 15 games. Let’s see how Cho does this time:
60%. Right on the nose. 60% of competitive matches is exactly the figure required for a country in between 21st and 30th in the FIFA World Rankings. In this instance, Cho Hyun-woo would automatically qualify for a work permit and be eligible to play in England for that winter transfer window or the following summer transfer window – provided Korea maintains their top-30 ranking. Remember, if the KNT slips to 31st, the requirement jumps up to 75% – something that is out of Cho’s reach.
Which begs the question…
Can Korea maintain their top-30 ranking?
There isn’t a huge gap between Korea falling out of the top 30 or staying in it. Ultimately, it will come down to friendlies and the Asian Cup. There are friendly matchdays in September, October and November of this year (seems a lot for a World Cup year, but we’re not complaining). Though most of that will be an initiation exercise for the new manager, winning those games remains important in order to ensure Korea doesn’t slip too far before the winter transfer window of 2019. After that, because continental competition (the Asian Cup) has an extra weight value, every win in that competition will give Asian countries a temporary edge in that ranking, as they are the first continent to host their continental tournament in the new 4-year cycle. That could make Korea’s precarious top 30 status last until the summer of 2019.
And it certainly would make San Cho’s ambitious hope of playing in the Premier League perhaps a little more realistic.
But regardless of whether or not Cho Hyun-woo goes to England or opts to try a lower-level European club first (most likely), Korea’s win over Germany combined with the new rankings system is a godsend for potential Korean Players Abroad. It marks a once-in-a-decade period where work permits are far less of an issue for established KNT players looking for a European move – such as Lee Jae-sung and Hwang Hee-chan. International friendlies may not mean much, but this is one of the instances where it can make all the difference.