After a long summer that saw many blockbuster deals in the world of football, the European transfer window finally concluded last Monday. Three Korean players abroad, including veteran Koo Ja-cheol and young talents Lee Seung-woo and Paik Seung-ho, have recently switched clubs and are looking to settle into new environments this season. With so much on the line for each of the three players, Joon details the agendas behind their signings and what is expected out of them by their new teams. Enjoy the read!
Koo Ja-cheol to the Qatar Stars League (Al-Gharafa)
After 200 appearances over a nine-year spell with three different teams in the Bundesliga, Koo Ja-cheol is finally calling it quits to a prolific football career in Germany. In two different stints with perennial mid-table finishers FC Augsburg, the 30-year-old made 140 appearances while netting on 22 separate occasions. His attacking versatility has allowed him to adopt many roles and create many scoring opportunities. KJC has been through thick and thin with Augsburg, helping the club through many relegation battles and even a Europa League campaign.
Last May, the Westphalian club allowed the Nonsan native an opportunity to extend his career in Europe with a three-year offer. KJC, however, rejected it promptly after the conclusion of the Bundesliga season in search of “new opportunities.” He would ultimately give the same verdict to offers made by other European clubs in Germany and Spain. Alternatively, KJC has decided to take his attacking talents back to Asia, settling on a move to Al-Gharafa of the Qatar Stars League.
Though KJC was likely offered quite the hefty load for it, money may not have been the only factor in his decision to move to the Middle East. Otherwise, the recent KNT retiree could have also made a possible move to other wealthy leagues in Asia, such as the Chinese Super League. Rather, according to sports journalist Steve Han, KJC may have some interest in “learning more about the physiology of different players within the AFC.”
KJC may be using time in his new home as an opportunity to establish connections with influential people in the Qatari football business. He makes this clearer when he refers to Qatar’s triumph in the 2019 Asian Cup as a “great indicator of the development of football” in the country. Desiring an administrative role in coaching and management in Korean football, KJC may be using his career in Qatar to get a head-start on post-retirement activities.
Still, this is not a move meant solely for his benefit. Despite their attacking being carried out by Dutch football legend Wesley Sneijder last season, Al-Gharafa managed a mediocre eighth place out of 12 teams. The team is looking to bounce back to top continental form, participating in the AFC Champions League for two seasons prior to last season. With the help of KJC and other experienced foreign players such as Mexican defender Hector Moreno, the Cheetahs have the potential to set the QSL on fire once again.
I wasn’t aware of this until recently, but Koo Ja-cheol actually has his own YouTube content that provides some intriguing insight into the inner workings of Korean football. His videos provide more firsthand content of the KFA than you would find anywhere in the English-speaking cyberspace. Just from some of the videos, you can tell how much the role of football administration and management means to KJC in leading the next generation of Korean footballers.
Through time in the Bundesliga, KJC has already developed a professional network in Germany that has allowed him to bring some European coaching influence to the Korean football system. My guess is that he sees an opportunity to fortify his professional network in Asia through the country that is next to host the World Cup. It makes sense considering Qatar’s rapid development of youth football for its own country.
In this way, KJC has already done more for the prospect of football in South Korea than many of the certified “football executives” in his home country. I was upset at what I initially perceived to be a cash-motivated move, but I’m glad that there’s a deeper dimension to the veteran’s decision. The QSL is now two games in, with KJC yet to have made an appearance for his new club. Let’s simply hope he gets his chance to prove what he still has left in a somewhat more unfamiliar setting.
Lee Seung-woo to the Belgian First Division A (Sint-Truiden)
Well, it was mostly evident that Lee Seung-woo wasn’t going to return to Barcelona when he was shipped off to Verona two years ago. Now, he might not be returning to Spain entirely. In his fourth professional season, the former La Masia standout will now have to prove himself in the Belgian First Division in a slowly descending career. Okay, maybe to say that the young man’s career is slowly going down the drain might be a little bit of an overstatement. At least, I certainly hope so.
LSW initially struggled to establish himself as a proper attacker in Italy. In his first season with Hellas Verona, he scored just once in 14 appearances, although impressively, in an away match against AC Milan. Still, LSW grew with this early experience and gradually gained the trust of then-Verona manager Fabio Grosso, finding himself starting several times last season in Serie B. He would go on to make 26 appearances while netting once and recording two assists.
However, Verona outdid expectations in the second division last season, winning the promotion playoffs into a spot in Serie A for the 2019-20 season. The Yellow and Blues would make massive shifts over the summer to prepare for another stint in the Italian first division, signing several experienced attackers in the process. New manager Ivan Juric no longer saw the need for the winger and made several attempts to sell him over the summer.
Many clubs expressed interest in LSW, including Serie B’s Empoli and Pescara, while the media also reported rumors of interest from Spain and Germany. By early August, however, the Italian media had him linked to a move to Belgium. Likely in an effort to entice last minute offers, LSW would deny the rumor, claiming that he was in talks with “bigger leagues.” Though, the rumor would prove to be true. LSW would leave to Sint-Truiden just before the Belgian transfer deadline on a two-year, £800K deal.
This move would make for the fifth transfer that Sint-Truiden, or STVV, has made for a player from Asia this summer. This includes a loan deal the club made for Vietnamese forward Nguyen Cong Phuong, who played for K-League club Incheon United last season. Japanese-owned club STVV has a history of signing burgeoning young talents from Asia. The club itself is incredibly diverse, with players spanning from five different continents.
Although few would have expected LSW to end up in Belgium during his La Masia days, history may prove to be on his side. Some of STVV’s recent Japanese departees have ended up in greener pastures over the last few years including current Bologna defender Takehiro Tomiyasu. If LSW can use his time in Belgium wisely, he may just find himself in one of Europe’s top five leagues after these next two seasons are up. But the competition in Belgium, which sits eighth in the UEFA league coefficient, is nothing to scoff at either.
I actually have quite a bit to express about this situation, and I’m tempted to write a long-form article about in in the future. For now, I’ll be frank: Lee Seung-woo is in a strange grey area between still having great potential but being outside of reach from a peak that, for him, was previously attainable. It’s a little harsh to look at it that way because he basically had a direct developmental route into world-class stardom taken away from him.
Yet, LSW had a chance to rejuvenate his career when he was shipped off to Italy at the blossoming age of 19. However, the former Barcelona youth failed to shine in an environment that wasn’t overly friendly to younger attackers. Now, at the age of 21, LSW is taking center stage in a league with more obscure competition than what he was previously slated to get in Serie A.
Hopefully, this doesn’t foreshadow LSW’s ultimate fate because the truth is that he already has a tendency to let his ego overshine his incredible talent and skill. When the young winger’s two-year contract with Sint-Truiden is up, he’ll be at the age of 23, which is still not fully out of the youth stage. If he does well, perhaps he can get right back on track to playing a starter role in a “top five” club.
If he fails to meet expectations, expect a barrage of criticism from KNT fans for someone who was supposed to be Korea’s answer to Lionel Messi. We, at the Tavern, speak quite a bit about LSW at the beginning of the Tavern’s first podcast episode uploaded on Soundcloud earlier this week. You can check that out here.
Paik Seung-ho to 2. Bundesliga (Darmstadt 98)
Speaking of La Masia products, it seems like yet another one of Barcelona’s Korean youth products will be leaving Spain entirely after all. Paik Seung-ho, one of Korea’s rising national stars, originally began his professional career with the Barcelona reserve team, making two appearances for them. From there, the midfielder would go on to sign with Girona, playing for their reserve team Peralada for the next two seasons. It was there that he would make his first impact on the professional stage, making 54 league appearances for the club.
Last season, Girona would dissolve their relationship with their farm team, only for them to bring PSH back to the original roster to get some crucial La Liga experience. Overall, the 22-year-old would make six total appearances for his main club, including a debut performance against Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey. Girona would eventually get relegated, meaning that the club would have only two spots for non-EU players this season, as permitted by Segunda Division rules.
With Girona needing to free up roster space, PSH was suddenly in a frantic search for a new club this summer. The Spanish media originally linked him to a Ligue 1 transfer, while Korean media outlets had him linked to an unprecedented move to the Premier League. However, by late August, PSH would leave to the German second division, finding a new home with Darmstadt 98. He has reportedly signed a three-year deal with an undisclosed transfer fee and weekly wage.
Like his midfield contemporaries Lee Kang-in and Jeong Woo-yeong, PSH possesses great vision and a high work rate that allows him to flourish in several European systems. Darmstadt, while another mid-table destination for Korean players in BL2, has been lacking some depth in its attacking midfield quite some time now. PSH fills in a role that his new club so desperately needs from someone with such a high ceiling of potential.
Unfortunately, FiveThirtyEight projects Darmstadt to finish second-to-last in its league campaign this season. Permitted that this prediction is going to be correct, PSH must take every advantage of this next opportunity to prove that he belongs with the best in Europe. Good performances this season will give him a path to a club in the “top five”, despite playing for a generally underwhelming team. It will also prove the young talent has what it takes to show up consistently for the KNT over the next few years.
When I first wrote about Paik Seung-ho last month, I easily predicted that he would leave Girona by the end of this summer transfer window. Especially due to the non-EU player restrictions, I couldn’t foresee a path for him to play in the Segunda Division, no matter what Girona’s promotion chances were. However, what I didn’t expect was for PSH to move from one second-division team to another.
The perfect opportunity for the midfielder would have been for him to leave to a mid-table Ligue 1 club. In France, he would have received the proper balance between getting sufficient playing time and playing in an adequately competitive environment. I’m not exactly convinced that PSH gets exactly that in BL2, where there are currently five other Korean players (some of which have little chance of making an appearance with the senior KNT).
PSH’s talent probably outshines that of most playing the German second division. Nevertheless, it’s critical that he gets playing time at this point in his career, considering most of his experience has come from opportunities at a reserve squad. Now, PSH has the chance to make his mark at one of Germany’s storied football clubs. There might also be a silver lining to his club being relegated this year because he could then move, possibly on loan, to somewhere he can really test himself.