After positive reviews from the last session of The Experts (eat your heart out, Optus & Fox, we’ve got a functioning platform AND insightful pundits), joining us again to share their World Cup 2018 post-mortems for Korea and thoughts on the future of Korean football, are international manager Steve Darby, MLS youth product Seo-In Kim and reputed journalist Steve Han.
Great to speak with you all again. Your final general thoughts on Korea’s World Cup campaign? Could we get a rating out of 10, with 1 being total failure, and 10 being unconditional success?
Steve Darby: I felt Korea were in the toughest group at the World Cup and they finished above Germany in that group. That’s a result which no one would have predicted. There is no doubt they gave maximum effort and perhaps were short of a quality striker to progress. Son couldn’t be in both midfield and attack. If I had to give a number it would be a 6. It must also be remembered that Korea lost key players due to injury.
I am actually amazed at the negativity in the Korean press and hierarchy about their team. What do they expect? The margin between success and failure is tiny at this level.
Seo-In Kim: It’s hard to put a number on Korea’s performance because of how drastic the changes were from the first game to the last. I’d say the final exit match against Germany was a 10 because of obvious reasons. They fought and showed the Korean spirit that we all remembered; we actually did enough to advance if Mexico had taken care of Sweden, but regardless I am very proud of how they ended up doing.
Steve Han: It’s difficult to give a score, but this campaign was by no means a success for Korea. I’d say it’s actually closer to a failure, but that’s not just based on the team’s performance. The last six or so years have been rough for Korea in every aspect. The KFA failed to equip the team with a system that’s designed for them to succeed. They had the opportunity to build a strong four-year cycle after the World Cup in 2014, but instead, they appointed an unproven manager whose deficiencies were quite clear from the start even when the team continued to produce the necessary results from 2015 to 2016. From the day Stielike was appointed in 2014 to the start of the final round of Asian qualifying in 2016, the average FIFA ranking of the opposition Korea faced for two and a half years was 95th. Stielike’s predecessors faced a much tougher competition (30th for Hong Myung-bo, 69th for Choi Kang-hee, 71st for Cho Kwang-rae, 70th for Huh Jung-moo and 69th for Pim Verbeek).
If you consider that this is the level of competition Korea faced, especially under an unproven manager, for over two and a half years following what was also a turbulent four-year campaign from 2010 to 2014, it’s no surprise that this team struggled to cope once they started playing against higher quality opponents. So, if I were to give a score for the performances in Russia alone, it’d probably be a 6 or perhaps even a 7, but knowing that the KFA purposely bypassed correctible flaws, I really can’t give anything higher than a 5.
Should Korea be worried that countries like Iran and Japan had better World Cups this time around, or is it nothing to panic about?
Steve Darby: If you are ruthless only Japan from the AFC region had a better World Cup (and I felt they were very unlucky v Belgium). The key is to strengthen the K-League and get the best players to Europe, such as Son Heung-min and Ki Sung-yueng have done. But a danger for the K-League like all Asian leagues is this: if you import strikers from abroad, your local players will not get experience from playing against them. It’s also very important to remember that Asia is massive. Korea can not emulate Iran culturally, and vice versa. A comparison to Japan and China is far more valid.
Seo-In Kim: I think we should be excited that our neighboring countries are able to do well. Asian football, in general, needs to grow and I don’t think it should be a rat race or a mismal comparison between Asian countries. We should be doing everything we can together to surpass the medium standard of football that we are viewed at.
Steve Han: Korean football has to progress at its own pace. Every country has a different culture for this sport and the infrastructure to support it should vary depending on those circumstantial discrepancies. In a way, I felt at ease watching Iran and Japan, because both teams showed that believing in your own vision on how to go about playing this game and establishing some stability within the national team setup can produce positive performances. Then again, Iran have really become institutionally reactive in how they interpret the game for about eight years now under Carlos Quieroz. Obviously, I understand that most, if not all AFC sides have to take the realistic approach of prioritizing defensive solidity, and their makeshift 6-3-1 formation out of possession was actually really impressive at times, but I just don’t see how they’ll progress further unless they start utilizing some of their attacking talents, all of whom were tactically sacrificed in Russia.
Moving on to the future now. Kim Pan-gon, the new technical director, announced recently that he wanted to bring about a new “Korean philosophy”, built on a very specific style of play (high pressing, ruthless counter-attacking, hybrid transitions, proactive football).
As an observer of Korean football for so long, was it refreshing to hear talk of this kind of long-term vision, or did it strike you as just damage control/platitudes (like many other things the KFA says)?
Steve Han: There’s obviously some mixed feelings, but for one, there’s something to be said about Kim Pan-gon. I mean, this should really be a given in any country that’s been to the World Cup as often as Korea has, but it’s actually quite refreshing to see a KFA chief who actually puts some thoughts into his words. As shocking as that may sound, his predecessors and current peers just don’t seem to have that level of intelligence. Then again, it’s also quite comical at the same time to sit back and listen to a man in charge of hiring a senior national team manager talking about establishing a philosophy on how the game should be played at every level of Korean football. It’s no rocket science to realize that this is a process that has to start at the grassroots level, starting from youth coaching. I’m sure Kim Pan-gon knows this, too. He’s had a similar (although a much more expansive) role in Hong Kong and produced some level of success there, but as he said in the past, it’s important for people in power at the KFA to say the “right things” when they’re in front of a mic.
As someone who was part of the program in Laos, is this easier said than done? What mechanisms (local level, grassroots, youth, domestic leagues) need to change for that Korean philosophy to take full effect — do Kim’s remarks strike you as naive, or visionary?
Steve Darby: I am always worried when someone criticizes another coach as he did with Uli Stielike. (Editor’s note: Kim said something to the effect of ‘Stielike was never qualified to be our manager’). Also, to be honest, he himself has only limited experience honestly in Hong Kong. It is very easy for him to use this word philosophy, and very few people actually know what it means. For example, if you have high pressing, you don’t have counter attacks! Nothing in football is short term (unless you buy players like Man City and PSG). To change the style of players, you have to start young. I think it takes about 10 years. It took Germany, Belgium and England about 10 years to develop the current players.
As someone who was part of grassroots development in the US, did the wants of the senior club or the national football association have a noticeable impact on the way you played or trained?
Seo-In Kim: When I was with Sporting KC, Peter Vermes (Head Coach) was involved with the Men’s National Team scouting and he definitely had a philosophy that he tried to implement and bring to us. We all did the same drills from the First team all the way down to U13 so the club had a shared sense of identity, and that definitely stemmed from the National Team coaching staff. It was an attempt at improving the culture, but I wouldn’t say that it made such a drastic difference that it was seen as a game changer.
Moving on now to the managerial search. Simple question for all three of you: should Shin Tae-yong stay, or should he go? What do you think about the names being floated around (Scolari, Van Gaal), and if they would be able to implement Kim’s “Korean philosophy”? What approach would you prefer?
Steve Darby: He was thrust into the job after Stielike, so he had a difficult time. Basically, the KFA must first decide are they going local and give the candidate time to work a la Southgate/Loew, or go foreign. The danger with going foreign is you may get a con man with a name! They will just take the money and run. If they do opt to go for a foreigner, they must get a candidate who is committed to the country and is prepared to learn about the football culture. Troussier did this with Japan. I think a Loew or Southgate style is needed. I think it would be crazy to bring in a Brazilian and expect Korea to play like Brazilians in one year! Football culture and national culture is very important.
Steve Han: Shin needs to go, and this is coming from someone who still believes that he’s a competent manager. He just wasn’t ready for this level yet, and it showed in how his set up his team to play in Russia. I won’t go into details, but I felt like most of his decisions were either overly simplistic or illogical, and I think that stems from his inexperience at international level. As I’ve tweeted during the World Cup, Shin seemed to have been too obsessed with correcting the team’s defensive flaws that he almost forgot that he actually had players at his disposal who could hurt the opposition. And then there was the fiasco with his failure to manage the players’ fitness levels prior to the tournament.
As I’ve said before, the KFA would be a lot better off if they would start looking beyond managers’ resumes. For starters, South America is a region with a wealth of talented, football-obsessed managers. There’s a notion amongst people involved in Korean football that South American managers often rely on individual skills of the players, but that’s just not true. When you watch these South American teams that produced some competent football in Russia, these are actually teams that are based on extensive pressing off the ball and attacking at speed on it. That’s a style that suits Korean football. Many of these coaches are also underpaid, and some are even on a monthly contract from what I’ve heard. There are managers who are just waiting for the right opportunity and more stable job security. Korea could provide both if they play their cards right.
Van Gaal especially has a reputation of being a little awkward/distant with his players – all his talk of “philosophy” and refusing to come onto the touchline and give instructions during matches didn’t seem to build a strong connection with the squad. In your playing experience, do you think Van Gaal’s distant, cerebral, hands-off approach would bother you? What’s the ideal coach for you?
Seo In-Kim: The ideal coach for me is someone who is calm and collected. Maybe Van Gaal is a bit too reserved (from what I heard) but it really depends on the type of players you’re working with. For me, I’d want a manager who instills belief into a player/team by not micromanaging so much and formulating a strategy based on the strengths that we, as a team, possess. Football can be such a simple game but the pressure to win forces many clubs/teams to act out of character. To have the type of confidence where you are composed and provide a growth environment for players can be very tough, but those are the teams that end up dominating and being the most successful. They are able to play the way they want every time instead of adjusting to their opponents. It’s crucial to have an identity and to not let anyone or anything affect that, and the manager is responsible for that. I will say that it’s important to at least have foreign coaches on staff because it adds creativity and valuable perspective that we may lack.
Steve Darby is the former manager of the Laos national team. Follow him on Twitter.
Seo-In Kim is a Sporting KC Youth Product and played NCAA soccer at Duke University and UC Santa Barbara. Follow him on Twitter.
Steve Han is a Korean football journalist for Goal Korea. Follow him on Twitter.