This article was requested by Tuco Salamanca. Who brought up the interesting point, that while Korea, and Asia at large (mainly Japan), have developed good forwards, plenty of quality midfielders, and some good fullbacks over the years, neither country has really ever produced a top centerback. For Korea, Hong Myeong-Bo has probably been the closest, but even the most die-hard Hong fans would have to admit that he falls well short of the likes of Cannavaro, Nesta, Maldini, Hierro, and his other contemporaries. So, the question is, why haven’t Korea and Japan (and other Asian countries) ever really produced a top central defender?
I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this question, nor do I have any real “evidence” to back up what I will propose in this article. These are mainly gut feelings, observations, and informed guesses on my part. So, please keep that in mind as you read.
What does it take to be a quality defender?
I think it would be best to start with, what makes a good defender? If you were building a defender what skills would they have? Physically they would be tall, strong, and quick. Mentally they would be very focused, alert, have quick reflexes, and be good readers of the game. Additional requirements would be they are strong in the air, good passers of the ball, have good positional sense, excellent communicators, and good timing in the tackle.
What It Takes to Develop a Defender
If you’re a young kid or teenager who dreams of playing professional football, what do you do? You play, of course. To get practice in the skills needed to be an attacker, all you really need is a ball. You can dribble everywhere and anywhere. You can pass and shoot to any spot. But to practice defense? You need at least one other person, but even then all you can practice is one-on-one defending. Vital skills like reading passing lanes, watching runs from deep, playing attackers offside, covering for each other, aren’t possible. The only way to get those skills is to play full games, and to play with the same group of people to develop chemistry.
Beyond that you need coaches who can help young players learn how to/develop the ability to anticipate. How to look at player movement and the spaces available to predict where attackers will move and where the ball may go. This skill is vital for defenders, and one that is incredibly difficult to develop.
Here, I will re-iterate my disclaimer. This is speculation on my part. I have not witnessed a training session at a Korean club or national team level to ascertain whether my gut instinct feel is correct or not.
In Korea there is a high level focus on technical skill. Nowadays it is very common to see football games of some sort all around the country. Whether it’s a full game or a small side match or the very popular 족구 (foot-volleyball). While this is of course good for the country as a whole, it pushes players to focus on skills that are more commonly associated with midfielders and forwards. Dribbling, control, short passing, and finishing. Walking around the area where I live, I constantly see small sided games or foot volleyball games being played by middle and high school aged students. The result is a generation of players who will likely be very skilled technical players, but ones who lack some of the key aspects to be a top defender.
At most of these games there is little defense played, and little effort to really defend beyond some basic “get in the way” type stuff. Once I had a class canceled, so I stood by the window and watched the high school kids play football next door for their sports class. Again, the defending was simple with little instructions. The players seemed eager just to lump it up field when it came to them, and there was little instruction from the teachers watching. Granted this school was not associated with any club team, like some are, but it still shows a potential problem with the way young students and players are taught about defending.
Here is an area where I feel that Asia falls short as a whole. There are few top level coaches, either at a positional level or head level, that are Asian. To me it says quite a bit that with Korea’s last two job openings there were few Korean names tipped to head it. The same could be said about Japan, who turned to a foreign coach (Alberto Zaccheroni) in the end. Defenders, as with all positions, require a top coach to help them develop the necessary skills to be successful. Right now, Korea has few to help players develop beyond an average level.
Korea is relatively new on the world stage. After squeaking into the World Cup, Korean papers and websites proudly proclaimed that Korea was part of an elite group as they had now qualified for the 8th World Cup in a row. That would bring us to the ’86 World Cup. Quite an achievement, but world football has been going on much longer than that. When looked at it from a generational perspective, Korea has maybe had 4-5 generations of players since then. Not a whole lot of time for a real world-class defender to emerge, especially when the first half of that time was a relatively poor period for Korean football (early 90’s).
As far as defenders go, it’s unfortunate that Hong Myeong-Bo played most of his career in the 90’s. Had he played 10 years later, I think that Korea may see more quality defenders being produced. Kids today grow up idolizing Park Ji-Sung, Park Chu-Young, Lee Chung-Yong, Ki Sung-Yueng, and Koo Ja-Cheol. All are midfielders or forwards. The aura around defenders isn’t great in Korea. Compare that to say an Italy or Germany where the likes of Scirea, Maldini, Cannavaro, Baresi, and Beckenbauer are still revered to this day. Hong, who enjoys great popularity in Korea, doesn’t come close to this level of admiration from the general or sporting public. As such there isn’t much glamor around the positions. Few young players really want to play in defense, and most who do probably are there as they didn’t quite make the cut at another position.
One in the Future?
So, can Korea produce a top centerback in the future? The answer is, “of course”, but it will take a special situation. Looking at the current crop, it’s difficult for me to see any of Hong Jeong-Ho, Kim Young-Kwon, Jang Hyun-Soo, or Kim Ki-Hee really becoming top class. I think they could all be very good, but not likely to be signed by the biggest teams in club football. But, they are a step in the right direction. A good career, particularly with the senior team, could help shine some light on the position and encourage more young players to try and become centerbacks. Also, as cable and satellite TV and internet streaming becomes more accessible, more young players will be able to watch top defenders from other countries, the Silva’s, Chiellini’s, Varane’s, and Ramos’ of the world play and aspire to be like them.
I’m also hopeful that Korea’s coaching and youth development system will continue to grow and expand, and that young players will get a better footballing education here at home. As Korea’s image as a footballing nation grows, hopefully more young players will also have a chance to train and grow at some of the top youth academies around the world as well.
A top class defender will emerge from Asia, and I think it’s very possible they will be Korean. Hopefully it will happen soon.