This is a new series that I’m testing out. It’s premise? To take a look at players who played for the senior squad, were tipped for greatness, only to fade away (or be in danger of fading away).
The first player in the list, Yoon Bitgaram (윤빛가람).
Yoon Bitgaram burst onto the scene in 2010 at his hometown club of Gyeongnam FC as a fresh faced 20 year old. That season (the 2010 season), Yoon made 24 league appearances for Gyeongnam and scored 6 goals. In the, now-defunct, League Cup, Yoon would chip in another 3 goals in 5 appearances. His break out season earned him the K-League Rookie of the Year award and a spot in the K-League best XI. Yoon had a similarly good season in 2011, making 25 league appearances (and scoring 6 goals), and 7 League Cup appearances (scoring twice). Yoon’s stock was definitely on the rise, and in the winter market, following the end of the 2011 season, historical giants Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma came calling. A bid estimated to be over 1 million pounds was lodged, and Yoon moved from Korea’s southeast to it’s northwest.
Yoon’s time at Seongnam was, unpleasant to say the least, for both sides. Seongnam, who had won the Korean FA Cup in 2011, earning a spot in the AFC Champions league, had brought Yoon in to help bolster the squad in a bid to be competitive on three fronts, and to help boost fan interest. By all accounts Yoon helped with neither. And you could certainly argue that he hurt the latter. Yoon only made 17 appearances in the league for Seongnam and failed to score a single goal. A lone goal in 7 continental appearances was all he could muster. His form was poor, and his attitude just as bad. No one, fans, management, and the player himself, seemed happy or even satisfied with the situation.
Despite new manager Ahn Ik-Soo insisting that Yoon had a place at the club if he wanted (and was willing to put in the effort), Yoon insisted on a move. His agent “revealed” interest from a number of foreign clubs such as Braga in Portugal, Werder Bremen in Germany, and a few “unnamed” Mid East clubs. In the end though, Yoon would stay in the K League, but head back south to Jeju United. The new season is very young, just two matches in, and Yoon has made a substitute appearance (in the league opener, a 1-0 win over Chunnam), and played against former club Seongnam (a 1-1 draw dubbed the Yoon Bitgaram derby).
For the national team, Yoon had been a mainstay. Captaining the U-17 side at the U-17 World Cup, while making 20 appearances. He would be a regular performer for the U-23 team as well. Rewind back to 2010, just after the World Cup, and it was the name “Yoon Bitgaram” on everyone’s lips as the next big thing, not “Koo Ja-Cheol” who now has certainly surpassed him. Yoon had an outstanding performance in the friendly against Nigeria, but was never able to hit that height again. The closest he came was at the AFC Championship, when his extra time winner in the quarterfinals against Iran earned Korea a semifinal spot.
Since then Yoon has rarely been called up to the senior squad. Even a spot on the U-23 team seems out of his reach now (Yoon is just 22). Hong Myeong-Bo tried him a few times during South Korea’s qualifying run to London 2012, but ultimately decided not to include him in the final squad. I will speculate a bit here, but I don’t believe anyone thinks that Yoon is not a talented youngster or does not have the necessary skill to be a very good player. Rather Yoon has mental problems. Problems with his attitude, work rate, and mental toughness. Yoon, at times, seems to be a player who thinks he has already made it, when he’s barely scratched the surface.
As mentioned earlier, Yoon is not old. He is currently 22, and will turn 23 in a couple months. His career could still certainly take a turn for the better, and he could find himself back in the fold. People who follow the senior squad know we are a bit thin in terms of quality at central midfield. Yoon, potentially, could serve as a viable back-up for both Ki Sung-Yueng and Koo Ja-Cheol. But he needs to get his head right quick. Hopefully his move to Jeju will allow him time to refocus his career, and perhaps enjoy playing again. Jeju is a decent team, who seems to be in the upper levels of the K League table each season (at least lately), but they do not often make it to the Champions League nor do the have the history of Seongnam, so perhaps some of the pressure will be off.
At, almost, 23, labeling Yoon Bitgaram as a total failure would be harsh. His star has not completely fallen, but it certainly is fading fast. If Yoon isn’t able to get his fire burning bright, it may be too late.