It’s safe to say that heading into this March’s friendlies, public support for KNT manager Uli Stielike is perhaps as low as it has ever been. Despite Korea securing a vital 2-1 comeback win against Uzbekistan thanks to goals from Nam Taehee and Koo Jacheol in the final game of 2016, the team’s defensive fragility and offensive uncertainty remain fresh in the minds of supporters. And though on the surface, the qualifying results of this KNT don’t look like anything to holler about (loss to Iran at the Azadi, wins against China, Uzbekistan and Qatar, unlucky draw to Syria), it is the shaky way in which the KNT scraped those results that has many Korean fans wondering if this is the time the Taeguk Warriors come short of World Cup qualification.
Many fans blame Stielike – and indeed, the manager is an easy and often reasonable target for such blame. As the team’s boss, he is responsible for the team’s performances. When you concede 2 goals against China, 2 goals against Qatar (both home games) and don’t show up at all in the away fixtures, the manager must bear a brunt of the blame. Indeed, it was Stielike’s post-game lamenting at the end of the 1-0 away defeat in Tehran (where he infamously blamed the youth system and the KNT not having a striker such as Qatar’s Sebastian Soria) that infuriated fans and players alike, with captain Ki Sungyueng having to publicly admit “the manager and us may not see this the same way” and Son Heungmin expressing his public disappointment and frustration at Stielike’s remarks. Not quite the Choi Kanghee-Ki Sungyueng Facebook post bust-up, but this one was instead quite public (and probably more hurtful).
Furthermore, observers are also pointing to the disintegration of Stielike’s coaching staff as another sign that the divisions within the locker room are more deeper than we may suspect. Park Kunha was an assistant coach when the former Real Madrid sweeper took the reins of the team back in 2014, but Park, Hong Myungbo’s former right-hand man, resigned in early 2016 to take over Seoul E-Land. That resignation alone may not have been such a story if it was not followed up on two occasions by Shin Taeyong’s departure (partial and now full) from the team – first in late 2015 to take up the Olympic national team post, and more recently to coach Korea’s U-20 side ahead of the FIFA U-20 World Cup this May-June, which the country is hosting. Though Shin departed part-time from the Gukdae to take on his Olympic post, he now has completely resigned from the national team staff.
A similar principle can be applied to the replacements that the KFA has hired for the two vacancies. Cha Duri’s hiring as a “video analyst” prior to the November matches of last year was interpreted by some as an attempt to restore the image of the team among the public as well as bridge the ever-increasing gap between Stielike and the players. A second hiring earlier this year of fellow 2002 veteran Seol Kihyeon to the post of assistant coach seemed like a bit much. Don’t get me wrong – Koreans love Cha and Seol, and the public will be eternally grateful for their 2002 exploits, but it is crucially important to consider that among them, only Seol has coaching experience (2 years at Sungkyungkwan University), and as such, they are relative novices in the coaching field.
The hiring of Seol was particularly baffling given that the Korea Football Association had promised to hire an “assistant manager with experience coaching in Europe” to replace Shin, who had close to a decade of coaching experience in Australia and South Korea at various levels. Fans were optimistic that the new assistant manager would better complement Stielike, particularly because the German is not known for his tactical ingenuity. Instead, Seol’s hiring smacks either of desperation to consolidate the dressing room’s unease or simply an inability from the KFA’s perspective to make the job attractive. Indeed, if the KNT’s managerial position is a “poisoned chalice” (a term often used at the time when the KFA searched for Hong Myungbo’s successor) then the job of becoming Stielike’s assistant is probably even less interesting.
So, suffice it to say, the state of the KNT is a fragile one, and it has been this way for several years. Stielike was supposed to bring stability to the KNT, but instead he has succeeded in keeping it as fragile, if not more fragile, than any point in the last decade.
But Stielike, like all national team manager, cannot control everything – and indeed, club form of players available for call-up is certainly way out of his reach. (For better or for worse). And with Uli set to announce his call-ups for March’s World Cup qualifiers against China (away) and Syria (in Seoul) next Monday local time, national team fans have reason to be a little bit concerned yet again.
A popular theory (which I myself have supported) to explain the KNT’s recent defensive malaise has been that the exodus of Korean centrebacks to the Chinese Super League is directly responsible for the declining form of players such as Hong Jeongho and the at times mind-numbing errors made by players such as Jang Hyunsoo. However, most agree that centreback with playing time is infinitely better than a centreback with no playing time at all. It keeps you sharp and match-ready. Unfortunately, neither Jang Hyunsoo nor Kim Keehee even made the bench for their respective clubs, where they are supposed to be star players. In fact, only 4/10 Koreans in the CSL played opening weekend. (and Hong Jeongho conceded a penalty…) This is attributable to the CSL’s late decision that only 4 foreign players may suit up for a club in any given game (even if clubs can have 4+1 players on their roster). As such, a long season of neglect seems to be awaiting several prominent Koreans playing in China. None of this is good for the KNT, whose best centrebacks have all flocked for the handsome pay of the CSL.
The problems don’t end in Asia, however, as many Korean Players Abroad have been injured or ignored of late. Park Jooho’s status is completely unknown at Borussia Dortmund; Kwon Changhoon is just settling into DCFO Dijon. Ki Sungyueng has yet to play for new boss Paul Clement due to injury (though he has just recently hit match-ready, I hear) while Lee Chungyong has been ignored by Sam Allardyce and confined to playing in the development squad. Son Heungmin isn’t been trusted by Pochettino for the big Spurs’ games but his rotation situation is still positive when you compare it to the state of other Koreans in Europe. Only Ji Dongwon and Koo Jacheol have been performing on a regular basis for FC Augsburg, while Hwang Heechan has been trusted to take up the main centre forward duties after Salzburg sold striker Jonathan Soriano to Chinese club Beijing Guoan.
Even back home, there are major issues. Once heralded (or not) strikers such as Hwang Uijo and Lee Jeonghyeop have found themselves playing in the second division of Korean football. And the bombshell news that the nifty Lee Jaesung will be out for 2 months will hurt both his chances of going to Europe this summer and the Korean national team (as Stielike has been using him in right midfield, as a second-choice to Lee Chungyong). You’ll recall that Lee’s substitution against Uzbekistan could arguably have been the turning point of the game, as he provided penetrative passes and dynamic interplay that the team hadn’t had until his introduction. Such features would have been crucial and potentially game-winning against China and Syria, both of whom will most likely play for a draw and park the bus.
One more headache? Got you covered. Son Heungmin will not be eligible to play in Changshan against Lippi’s China due to yellow card accumulation. (Though Son will be available in the second match against Syria.)
With the K League just getting underway, basically all players eligible for the KNT (with the exception of Qatar-based Nam Taehee) are either regaining form and or going through the early season motions. Given the team’s struggles against China and Syria last September, when the squad overall was in a better condition mentally and physically, national team fans would be right to be worried about how this tactically lame manager with inexperienced assistants and a fragile, largely out-of-form national team will fare against the Syrian 11-man blockade and the den of Marcelo Lippi’s China.
After all, it’s only a World Cup berth on the line!