17 for 2017.
17 moments that defined a tumultuous year in Korean football. From Uli Stielike’s unglorious departure, to the Taeguk Nangja demonstrating tenacity and true grit in Pyongyang, to BEATING JAPAN IN JAPAN!, this series will serve one simple purpose – to immortalize the year that was in hanguk chukgu.
Today, Kwon Chang-hoon – from Suwon to Dijon.
It was written in the stars.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, in a family of bakers, Kwon Chang-hoon’s move to France was maybe something truly inevitable. His parents’ bakery? Paris Baguette. After earning the nickname as “Bread-man” after excelling at Korea’s most popular football club, Kwon’s move to Dijon on January 18th, 2017, is our first 17 for 17 moment.
Suwon Born and Bre(a)d…
Kwon Chang-hoon’s ascension to becoming one of the rising stars in Korean youth soccer is one-in-a-generation. At just 16 year old, the youngster joined Suwon’s U-18 ranks, later going on to Maetan High School as part of Suwon’s youth program. Though many stars elude the Korean national team set-up for several years before eventually making their mark at a certain phase, Kwon is quite the contrary. Capped to Korean youth teams since 2009, when he was just 15, Kwon has made himself known throughout the Korean soccer circle since his youth, shining because of his speed, technique and consistency.
Indeed it was that consistency – the ability for his body to hold up against difficult, older opponents – that saw him get playing time at every stage of his career, a luxury that the Korean youth soccer system’s institutions doesn’t encourage. In 2012, he was drafted to the Bluewings’ senior squad and made his debut for the Bluewings in the Asian Champions League in 2013, scoring his debut goal against Guizhou in the group stage. Later that year, he was a staple in that U-20 World Cup side that was one penalty shootout away from the semi-finals, and though he made only 8 league appearances in his debut season, the 19 year old was defying the odds by becoming one of the few teenagers getting playing time and serious consideration for the lineup among the entire Korean league.
The next three seasons, however, would see him go from the baker’s son to one of the best domestic players in the K-League. Kwon would dazzle with his midfield domination, quickly retrieving balls and using his hallmark directness and determination to drive Bluewings attacks up the pitch. His versatility was key too, as he could pretty much deputize in any midfield role asked of him, even as a wider midfielder. Though his physicality let him down earlier on, as a light youngster in a physical league (for Asian standards), what he lacked in strength he made up with control. His sheer ability to control the ball, good vision and solid first touch made him the perfect enganche. His speed and ball retrieval abilities made him the perfect box-to-box midfielder. His dribbling technique made him a useful engine for the side. And his ability to convert difficult chances made him an adequate star for any team in a league that sometimes disappoints, with foreigners having to do a bulk of the finishing.
After Kim Do-heon left Suwon in 2014, Kwon Chang-hoon soared and took his place at the heart of the most popular side in Korea. He made 72 league appearances in 2015 and 2016, claiming man of the match awards and named in the 2015 K League Best Eleven. Quickly becoming the heartthrob of Suwon supporters, Kwon eventually earned the moniker “Bbanghoon-i”, or “Bread-hoon-i”. In August of that year, he made his senior debut under Uli Stielike and scored three goals in World Cup qualifying against Laos and Lebanon. Playing alongside Ki Sung-yueng in a double pivot, Kwon was the useful, attacking, energetic presence to push back weaker opponents. When 2016 rolled around, however, his focus shifted to the U-23 side and the Rio Olympics, where his momentous goal against Mexico in the final group stage game saw the team top their group of Germany, Mexico and Fiji.
Many fans quickly realized that Kwon’s dominance in the domestic league couldn’t stay. A young player performing at the highly consistent and fundamental way he was couldn’t remain on Korean shores, and rumors swirled about his possible destination. Germany? Spain? England? Of the three, Germany seemed the most probable, given that his style of play seemed to better fit the Bundesliga and would allow him to be nurtured and developed while playing a key role – like Son Heung-min’s time in Hamburg. But out of the blue, it was Dijon who came calling, and Korea soccer fan’s long wait for another player to hop off of the proverbial boat and try their hand in Europe had come to an end.
…Dijon’s Favorite Son
The focus of this post should be about Kwon Chang-hoon at Dijon – but his background is indeed super important. Kwon’s “fast-tracking” through the youth system and numerous experiences of drinking from the firehose seems to have paid off in the big leagues. The earlier part of this year – the latter half of the 2016-17 season – saw Kwon perform without much shine. The manager didn’t really seem to know where to play him, and Kwon struggled for playing time, waiting a month before his debut – and then disaster. After attempting a dribble in his first game, having come on a substitute, Kwon lost the ball. Counter-attack the other way, and Dijon fell behind.
Though he made only 2 starts in the back half of that season with Dijon, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. FranceFootball noted his “passing range, and raw dribbling ability”, while others saw worth in his work rate. Some doubted whether or not he would be able against the odds to stake his place in 2017-18, and the sale of certain players seemed to indicate that Kwon would get his shot.
“I joined in the middle of the season, so I was not really at my best. I needed time to adapt to French football and to Dijon. This season, I did all the training with the team and the staff, so I could be at the level I wanted to be at.”
All that work playing against players not of his own size paid off.
After two tough games for Dijon against Marseille and Monaco, les Dijonnais had a real chance to flourish against Stade Rennais. It was Kwon’s third appearance of the season, and the Korean finally got that elusive debut goal he was seeking, though it was, in truth, a case of “right place, right time”, a header off of a rebound. But his next couple of appearances were poor, and it took another goal – a tap-in this time – for Kwon’s stutter-start to the season to rev into action. A fair display against PSG, an assist against Metz – but then, in November, the real deal.
It was the Korean derby, the first of its kind in Ligue 1. Kwon Chang-hoon lining up against Suk Hyun-jun (seen later in this series!). Both sides were dwindling in the lower mid-table but had a credible chance to fly up the table with full points. Kwon cast aside all doubts about his starting team place and average commencement to the season by dominating the game. Playing as an inverted wide midfielder, the left footed speed merchant on the right flank, Kwon’s scintillating cross to teammate Julio Tavares right after halftime put Dijon ahead 2-1 in the crucial battle. 4 minutes later, a silky run from the right flank and a shot low, hard with a quick release – think Park Ji-sung – secured all three points for Dijon. It was official, Korea was on the map.
Canal+’s “Jour du Foot” (equivalent to Match of the Day in England) raved about the performance of these “exotic” Koreans and Dijon’s “excellent gamble”. After Kwon then scored in two successive games, making him temporarily his team’s top scorer, L’Équipe, a hugely popular French football magazine, did an entire feature on Kwon. BeIn Sports highlighted the Koreans’ achievements in their L1 Show. Dijon fans tweeted their astonishment at how another French side didn’t make the same discovery their scouts did. Perhaps we will never know why Kwon didn’t get the recognition he deserved, but we do know that Kwon is, in his own way, shedding a positive light on K League prospects that could bear fruit for years to come.
Undoubtedly the highlight of his season, as he continues to make important starts and turn into a staple of this Dijon side, was his superb goal against Amiens. The swerve, the speed, the release, the power, the placement, the perfection of his strike is exquisite. This superb run of form has made him a likely starter at the World Cup in Russia, fitting perfectly into Shin Tae-yong’s pressing ideology with his indefatigable energy, alert one-touch passing and solid defensive ability. If he continues to succeed at the rising levels we saw in 2017, the sky really is the limit for the baker’s son from Seoul.
An excellent highlight video created by @LeDijonShow on Twitter: