December 29, 2012
Happy (post) Festivus. Leading off, the Blue Dragon, the midfielder in Stoke City’s eye, the one and only Lee Chung-Yong netted Bolton’s 2nd goal against Birmingham in what would turn out to be a 3-1 decisive victory for the Wanderers. It was a brilliant strike, Lee ended up rounding the keeper and got in the shot at a tight angle. The eventual game winner, his 4th goal of the season comes in the wake of reports of Stoke City’s reported interest in the South Korean international. A possible £8 January transfer is under negotiations. Here’s a quick video summary:
Since the Tavern went online in August – detailing a few items about Korean soccer/football, it’s been quite a roller coaster ride. The major waves that went down: South Korea winning the Haniljeon against Japan to win Bronze in the Summer Olympics, giving exemption to a whole generation of Korean footballers who would otherwise been hamstrung by 2 years of military conscription (without exemption would mean playing mediocre football in an military football team). Park Chu-Young escaped his purgatory existence at Arsenal and got a new lease in European top flight football at La Liga’s Celta Vigo. Ki Sung-Yeung, part of the Scottish Premier League winning Celtic side, had a high profile transfer to Premier League upstarts Swansea City. Koo Ja-Cheol and Son Heung-Min helped their respective Bundesliga sides escape relegation towards the end of the season, while Ji Dong-Won got shelved at Sunderland despite some promise shown with his dynamic performance in the Summer Olympics. Cha Du-Ri transfered from Celtic to newly promoted Fortuna Dusseldorf. Did we forget to say this year was a roller coaster of a year? Wouldn’t be one without the delicious highs and devastating lows. Here’s the rundown:
South Korean Olympic Team beating team GB in quarterfinals AND beating Japan in the Bronze medal match. Hands down, THE event of the year for the Tavern. Especially given such a troubling season for Park Chu-Young at Arsenal, it was a huge uplift for everyone following Korean football at that moment. Hong Myung-Bo’s hybrid Olympic squad were written off by many in the western football press and not expected to advance past the group stage. Their incorrect analysis of the South Koreans wound up being just as good as Mitt Romney’s pollsters. The Taeguk Warriors gave the eventual gold medalists Mexico defensive heartburn (a scoreless draw), they dismantled Switzerland and then faced host country Great Britain in the quarterfinals. A Ji Dong-Won goal, a contested penalty awarded Great Britain, dramatic saves and a nervous extra time later, it all came down to penalty kicks and substitute Lee Bum-Young had to fill in for the stellar-but-injured Jung Sung-Ryong. Nail biting? Talk about chewing off my entire hand, yet the team’s steely confidence didn’t betray them and after Lee Bum-Young blocked Daniel Sturridge’s PK shot, Ki Sung-Yeung shot so composed, it was almost anti-climatic. But at the Tavern, it was pandemonium and ebullience as they advanced to face Brazil in the semifinals. Alas, despite a good opening 25 minutes of coordinated attacks that pinned Brazil in their own half (and what should’ve been a penalty awarded Ji Dong-Won as well as Kim Bo-Kyung later in the match), Brazil samba football found it’s rhythm and with it the game by a score of 3-0. At that point they had gone farther than any Olympic football team in South Korean history. There was only one more shot at getting a medal -and only Japan stood between them and their Bronze medal ticket out of a 2 year military compulsory duty. High noon at the Cardiff coral for the Haniljeon. Park Chu-Young made THE goal of his career to open the scoreline, fending off not one but 4 Japanese defenders -and was still able to rocket it past their goalkeeper. Koo Ja-Cheol finished off a brilliant 2nd insurance goal and suddenly with the medal win, a whole class of Korean kids earned their way to freedom – freedom to ply their trade in top flight Europe professional football and with it the promise of taking those experiences and skills back to strengthen the South Korean national team. It was a damn good summer indeed -which is when the Tavern first went online in an inspired bout of delirious madness. It can all be blamed on these games.
Ki Sung-Yeung midfield ballin’ at Swansea. It didn’t take long for Ki to win a starting spot for the Swans, and with it accolades for his calm and collected deep midfield performances. There were glimpses, playing for Celtic last year, of his true potential, and it took Michael Ladrup’s Spanish style passing and possession playing to unlock what Ki was capable of. Weirdly enough, Ki initially got playing time due to some injuries and red card suspensions that left the defensive options depleted; Ki was thrust into a central defensive role (a first for a Korean abroad). Later, he was given the keys to be the playmaking midfielder that Swansea fans know and love. Wins against Arsenal and an impressive and entertaining draw against Manchester United has given the Swans some swagger riding into 2013. Ki wins the Korean Football Player of the Year for the second straight year in a row.
Son Heung-Min tearing it up and scoring crucial goals for Hamburg and is the leading Korean goalscorer in Europe (so far). At only 20 years on terra firma, Hamburg and Son were in the hole for the first couple of games and their early season troubles was a reminder of their near brush with relegation last season. Suddenly a surprise return move to his former club by Rafael Van der Vaart rejuvenated Hamburg. Additionally a creative Son-Van der Vaart connection was forged; the connection unleashed Son and he soon lit up Hamburg’s opponents, scoring an impressive 6 goals, several of them game winners against teams like Borussia Dortmund, with a couple of assists to boot.
Park Chu-Young scoring the game winner for Celta Vigo against Getafe with his first Balaidos appearance in September. Definitely a highlight as Park becomes the first Korean to score in La Liga. Since that history making goal, he’s scored other crucial goals including an equalizer against Mallorca and a Copa del Rey header against Almeria (that win propelled Celta onward in the Cup tournament leading to the current 2 leg affair with Real Madrid – which they lead with an aggregate score of 2-1).
Lee Chung-Yong returned from a long term leg breaking injury to Bolton. Unfortunately his return in May for the very last game of the season coincided with Bolton’s heartbreaking relegation (damn you Joey Barton!). Since then, life in the NPower Championship has been a painful grind as Bolton has been riding uncomfortably near the drop zone, not to mention a jarring Owen Coyle’s dismissal early in the season. Lee has struggled to win back playing time, but when on the pitch, he’s rewarded the Wanderers by scoring 4 goals. As indicated earlier, he’s been strongly linked to Stoke City for the January transfer window, so his return back to the Premier League may be fast tracked.
Koo Ja-Cheol came back to Augsburg from an early season ankle tendon injury. That’s been one of several misfortunes that’s befallen Augsburg, but since his return in late October, he’s been back to his tenacious footballing (enough to make it onto John Duerden’s Top 10 Asian Players of 2012) and scored 2 spectacular goals, both candidates for Bundesliga goals of the week. Unfortunately, Augsburg’s luck still has not caught up with them as they are still struggling to escape relegation.
Kim Bo-Kyung has had a lot of stiff competition for the Bluebirds. In Cardiff’s case, the plethora of decent midfielders has meant a record 10 game home winning streak and first place to show for their effort. Kim meanwhile has slowly broken into the starting lineup, gradually building up minutes and decent performances. He finally scored his first goal for the Bluebirds against Blackburn on December 7th. More to come for ‘Kimbo’ and his new Welsh side as they feverishly work to secure passage into the Premiership (and get back to fighting with Swansea City up there).
Ulsan Hyundai won the Asian Champions League title in November. Ulsan’s blazing title run has been described as “swashbuckling,” an apt description for a team that saved their best for the ACL. Between Lee Keun-Ho, Brazilian international Rafinha, Estiven Velez ‘de Columbia’ and the “Wookie” Kim Shin Wook, they towered over the competition and concluded their unbeaten streak in the tournament by winning their first Asian title with a convincing 3-0 win over Al Alhi. They become the 3rd K-League team in 4 years to win the tournament title.
Lee Keun-Ho winning Asian Champions League MVP, and AFC 2012 Asian Player of the Year. The linchpin of Ulsan’s success in the Champions League, the dynamic South Korean midfielder was linked to several European clubs until his untimely conscription into the South Korean army in mid December. More on that in the lows of the year later on in the post. Lee also made it onto Dueden’s Top 10 Asian players of 2012.
Lee Young-Pyo wins Vancouver Player of the Year 2012. A member of the legendary 2002 South Korean World Cup semifinalist squad, the ageless left back made a productive year of it in Vancouver. He amassed an epic number of quality minutes and was a vital part of a newly transformed Vancouver side that saw them advance to the MLS playoffs, a first for a Canadian team. Lee gave Vancouver managers a scare by contemplating retirement in the offseason. They can wipe the sweat off their nervous brows: Lee is coming back for (what we think) is his last year playing professional soccer. Additional provisions in his new contract include rest for east coast away games and a possible assistant managerial role in the near future. He may yet have a part to play in future for the Taeguk Warriors -boss Lee Young-Pyo has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
Taeguk Warriors U19 AFC Champion title win. The title win sets up entry into next year’s FIFA U20 World Cup in Turkey. A last second goal by Moon Chang-Jin and epic saves by Lee Chang-Guen gave South Korea the opportunity to win a narrowly contested final game against a surprisingly agile Iraq. Meanwhile, the U16 team dominated in the group stages of their AFC tournament, including an impressive Haniljeon win against Japan. A shock upset by Uzbekistan in the quarterfinals ended their run, but several of the players including Hwang Hee-Chan and Choi Ju-Yong looked like promising players for the Taeguk Warriors going forward in the future.
K-League institutes split league and relegation for the first time in it’s history. While the numbers going into the stadiums continued to be dismally low, there was cause for optimism and excitement as the K-League finally instituted necessary long-term format changes to bring it in line with FIFA international standards. Add some much needed drama and danger to the K-League’s dimensions, every team is now playing for their very survival – once clubs drop into a yet to be formed 2nd division K-League, there’s no guarantee clubs can remain financially solvent. While more changes are still needed to fill the stadiums and make baseball (and it’s popularity among South Koreans a past-time), this is an excellent place to start the turnaround to give a much needed boost to it’s domestic football league(s).
Rising future players in European academies. Of course there needn’t be the weight of over-expectation placed on their very young shoulders. Nevertheless, it’s exciting to see the potential promise for club and country when you glimpse their class on the pitch. Lest we forget, Son Heung-Min was a product of Hamburg’s youth academy system. Talent can be found throughout, but especially at Barcelona’s venerated La Masia. Several Korean youngsters are getting a fine education there, including Lee Sung Woo who just scored 4 goals for Barca’s U-15 team in midweek. A number of writers have taken notice, but while it’s too early to say what the eventual fate will be for any of these players-in-training, some have openly declared that Lee could have the right stuff to eventually be the senior Barca’s #9. BigSoccer Korean Players Abroad forum is the best means of following some of these academy Korean youngsters – this particular youtube video segment produced by Barca TV is one of many brought to an amazing hyper-focused attention at the forum (goal from Lee at 52 seconds in):
South Korean men’s national football team’s fall World Cup Qualifiers under coach Choi Kang-Hee. There were glimpses of brillance, but mostly ugly and disjointed performances as the Taeguk Warriors drew 2-2 with Uzbekistan, lost 1-0 to Iran, and lost a 2-1 friendly to Australia. As a result, South Korea has fallen to runner up status to Uzbekistan in their World Cup qualifying group and fallen out of the top 30 in the latest FIFA rankings.
Ulsan crashes out of the FIFA Club World Cup. Their quarterfinal 3-1 loss to Monterrey didn’t come close to how badly the K-League side looked against their CONCACAF opponents. They followed that with an identical 3-1 loss to Hiroshima – highlighting some glaring differences between the quality passing game on display by the J-League champions and Ulsan Hyundai’s lack of it.
Lee Keun-Ho‘s number to serve in the military comes up, joins relegated Sangju/Army team. How is it exactly that South Korea has not made the proper adjustments to allow exemption or deferment to the 2012 Asian Player of the Year is beyond anyone’s imagination. He’s been an integral member of the senior South Korean national squad, but his future form may be in question with the lack of any kind of quality football he is expected to face in the newly relegated league. This is anti-football, pure and simple. Is South Korean football losing it’s once vaunted edge against neighbors like Japan due to the military conscription rule that gives out very few exemption? The hard cold reality is that South Korea already has ceded the competitive football edge to it’s neighbor, but the other grim reality is there isn’t much appetite within South Korean politics at present for amending the rules to benefit the Taeguk Warriors. The tragedy of the 60 year old Korean War apparently still rears it’s ugly head, the overarching consequences affecting even something as peaceable as soccer in the peninsula. To be continued…
Japanese players in Europe increasing in numbers. By the Tavern Statistician’s last count, there are 20 Japanese national team players who play for top flight European clubs this season. Contrast that with 12 South Korean internationals based in Europe (that’s not counting Ji Dong-Won and Kim In-Sung, who have yet to play any minutes this season for their respective clubs).
FIFA Rankings: Taeguk Warriors drops down to 35th in December. South Korea was placed in October with a 25th ranking (Japan at the time was ranked 23rd). Since then the gulf had widened and Japan sits at 22nd in the current FIFA world rankings. Again, a possible reflection of where Japanese players are headed to, versus where they may get stuck in South Korea.
Park Ji-Sung transfer to Queens Park Rangers. From Manchester United. Enough said.
If you don’t already count Park Chu-Young’s season of pergatory at Arsenal, his mixed performance for Celta Vigo takes a minor 6th place in our list of lows of the year. Since loaned out by Arsenal, Park has had his own roller coaster ride at Celta – a warm reception followed by Parkmania after his game winning first goal of the season, a game winner at Getafe (and the first goal scored by a Korea in La Liga). But since then a scoring drought drew unsatisfactory marks from coach Paco Hererra, and he’s been tinkering with his starting forwards ever since. Thus far with 3 goals from a player Celta hoped would lead them out of relegation danger, both Park and the club clearly expects better in the 2nd half of the season. On closer examination to his season, Park had come close, damn close to scoring, especially against Real Madrid in their first regular season clash. At times he’s been at the right place at the right time, but this game can come down to mere inches and close isn’t the same as goals scored in his case. For further context, he did sustain a knee injury that sidelined him for a spell: we can attribute religious faith both to his hard work & inspiration AND blame it for his knees-in-the-ground self-injurious post goal celebrations. My prayer? God, Buddha or the voices in Park’s head would lead him to celebrate goals that don’t involve potential knee injuries.
Ji Dong-Won not utilized by Sunderland this fall. Difficult for me to be in a manager’s shoes, what with the intense glare of world media scrutinizing every move, in victory -and in Sunderland’s case, more often in defeat. Still, Martin O’Neil is every bit culpable of a abhorrent fall campaign that by and large comprised of a single goal scoring threat in Steven Fletcher. That single threat amassed all 5 of Sunderland’s goals for most of the season (until recently). Ji at this point has not seen a single minute on the pitch for the Blackcats, that despite his promising summer Olympic form. By not even considering Ji so as to give variance to their plodding offense, that is but one factor in which O’Neil clearly squandered the first half of the season to inept uncreative managing. Martin may be having a slight respite from withering criticism at the moment for getting another odd 1-0 victory over Manchester City, (this time on boxing day), yet Sunderland fans have not forgotten about Ji’s last-second last-gasp goal that defeated the eventual Premier League title winners on New Year’s day of 2012. No matter the cult figure status and Sunderland’s mystery player of 2012 he attained, Ji no doubt is looking for a way out – possibly with a move to FC Augsburg, and less attractively so with a move back to Chunnam Dragons, his former K-League club.
Some Koreans off the radar: Kim In-Sung for CSKA Moscow and Suk Hyun-Jun for FC Gronigen. Park Joo-Ho lost his starting role as left back for FC Basel (but may be rotated back in with Europa knockout games resuming in 2013). Exiting Europe and returning to South Korea, ex FC Seoul forward Jo Jung-Gook. He had been with AJ Auxerre in 2010, then loaned out to AS Nancy in the 2011-2012 season. He played a handful of minutes before quietly returning to FC Seoul during the summer. He still had a role to play as he scored the game winning goal that sealed FC Seoul’s 5th K-League title last month. Currently he’s serving his time in a 2 year compulsory stint in FC Police.
Poor attendance at K-League games. The Tavern receives the K-League game highlights via youtube subscription, and what we see each week is alarming. Beautiful, cavernous stadiums, many built for the 2002 World Cup, mostly empty of fans while hard fought games are being contested on the pitch below. Occasionally there are matches that are packed, but those are few and far in-between. They’ve had to patch up morale in the unraveling of 2011’s devastating match-fixing scandal that resulted in 3 high profile suicides by disgraced K-Leaguers. Some would argue that low salaries paid out by the K-League played a part in encouraging that kind of illegal ‘supplemental income.’ But the poor attendance that feeds into this cycle doesn’t bode well for the financial health of the division. A poorly run division devoid of fans is of course detrimental in the long run for South Korea to remain competitive in international football. It’s quite a conundrum as South Koreans are generally enthusiastic of the Taeguk Warriors, especially the high profiled European based players, but are largely apathetic about their own domestic league, this despite the fact that 3 of the last 4 Asian Champions League titles belonged to K-League clubs. John Duerden (who ought to be a paid Tavern contributor with the number times we mention him) suggested the astronomical number of games each team has to play (44) dilutes the importance and excitement offered by most other leagues who play less often in their regular season. Lee Young-Pyo offered constructive criticism, recently telling the K-League to take a page out of the MLS in the way they cultivated fans in the last 10 years. Perhaps that means replacing huge stadiums with smaller, sleeker football specific stadiums as the MLS has adopted. That measure alone, going with the ‘if-you-build-it-they-will-come’ route has done wonders for the MLS’ average attendance rates. Finally, securing more TV deals, including distribution to a wider world TV market, could put rear ends finally into the stadiums and rejuvenate the league.
Enough of the lows. We could keep going but it’s time to put this roller coaster to bed. It could require monumental shifts in thinking and groundshifting legal changes in military conscription laws, but there is always hope that with a new year coming up – something, somehow will improve the overall lot of the Taeguk Warriors.
Quick roundup of last weekend’s games. Not much to report as several leagues have shut down for the winter break. Not so in England, but the narrative is limited to Swansea’s Ki Sung-Yeung playing supporting midfield roles (and nearly a goal against Reading on Boxing day) along with Lee Chung-Yong scoring for Bolton on Saturday. So far, Cardiff continues to ride top of the Npower Championship table with wins against Crystal Palace (Boxing day) and Millwall on Saturday. They enjoy a 5 point lead on 2nd place Hull. Kim Bo-Kyung was on the bench for both matches, but with 2 more games next week, it’s expected ‘Kimbo’ will be rotated back into playing time soon. Swansea’s Boxing day was a scoreless affair with Reading, while they had a thrilling 2-1 win at Fulham on Saturday. And wait a tic, could that really be…is that really…Ji Dong-Won made it back to the 18 man roster for Sunderland on Saturday against Tottenham! Was it an illusion – a hologram of Ji on the bench? No, this was the real Ji, and in the ghostly light of the computer monitor, there was Ji’s name on the first team roster. How you might ask? Apparently ex-Spurs Louis Saha is out of favor with Martin O’Neil at the moment. Surprises are still to be had before New Years. Ji still didn’t get to play of course. An interview given earlier in the week, O’Neil expressed his desire not to sell Ji outright, but to possibly loan him out in January in order to eventually get him more playing time with Sunderland. Anyway, Sunderland returned to their losing ways, going down 2-1 to Tottenham. Gareth Bale played his part for the Spurs and got booked for diving. Meantime, the Tavern wonders if Martin O’Neil plans on actually managing by rotate the offense and possibly playing Ji in the upcoming fixtures in January. What else can we parse out of Ji rejoining the 18 man roster yesterday?
And while it might be break time in Spain, Park Chu-Young knows he needs to step it up for Celta Vigo. Like a protagonist in a movie, against the ropes and facing long odds, SportalKorea correspondent Santiago Perez reported on his blog Rainmaker18.com that he’s been alone, practicing every day at the club’s training grounds in Vigo, relentlessly working, sharpening his skills, and not giving up. The rest of the team finally restarted official club practices again, and as odd as it sounds, rejoined Park at the training grounds.
Transfer talk: Kim Shin-Wook to Europe? The huge Ulsan forward has been compared to Andy Carroll, for better or worse, we can’t say. Not much to report and not sure exactly what clubs may be interested. We’ll see what happens next month.
Seongnam Ilhwa midfielder Yoon Bit-Garam has had a good bit of interest from SC Braga, that according to abola.pt Again, we’ll have to see what the January transfer window bears out.
FC Seoul midfielder Ha Dae-Sung has been linked – and for this one let’s go one more time back to John Duerden (this is starting to sound like the Johnny Duerden show…)
Dinamo Zagreb reportedly bid $6.5 million for FC Seoul and Korea star Ha Dae-sung. Also interest from Portugal
— John Duerden (@JohnnyDuerden Twitter) December 26, 2012
That’s a good chunk of change there. Let’s see where this one goes…
Hong Myung-Bo, the Taeguk Warriors winning Olympic coach (and the Tavern’s choice for taking over the managerial reins of the senior men’s South Korean team) according to the Chosun Ilbo is looking to become an assistant coach under Guus Hinddink, now a manager for Anzhi Makhachkala. Like Chelsea, they are owned by a gazillionaire Russian oligarch. Unlike Chelsea, they play in one of the most dangerous places on earth, so dangerous, the team only flies into Makhachkala to play, then flies out to Moscow to practice.
Dawn is on it’s way and the Tavern owner desperately needs to get a bit of shut eye. Here’s wishing you a very happy New Years and a promising 2013 for the Tavern and for the Taeguk Warriors. Cheers!