Flashback to 2014. Hong Myungbo’s side haplessly crashes out, without even a victory, of the Brazil World Cup. Though having offered his resignation, the KFA convinces the 2002 World Cup captain to stay on as manager. Hong insists, however, and a couple weeks later, his departure is confirmed in an unexpected press conference.
Most of the Korean football commentariat (of which we are but a meager part) were unanimous – the next manager of the national team needed to be foreign. He needed to bring fresh, new ideas into the Korean national team and build a squad that could rely and rally around those tactics.
Many names were thrown out there. Bob Bradley. Neil Lennon. ‘Robert Prosinecki. Bert Van Marwijk. Radomir flippin’ Antic. Could we even convince the elusive Senol Gunes? Part pipe-dream, part foolish hope. Financial constraints and a peculiarly precise list of criteria (including the necessity to be fluent in English?) disqualified many of the candidates, and on September 4th, 2014, the Korean Football Association hired Uli Stielike.
This post will serve as a timeline. It will be an autopsy. It will be a post-mortem. So come up to the Tavern bar, grab your drink of choice, slip me one too (they haven’t asked for my ID yet) and settle in. You might need it.
Stielike’s first time managerial credentials have never been very impressive. Some basic experience in Switzerland and Spain, mostly unimpressive stints in the Middle East after a short and fruitless tenure at the head of Cote d’Ivoire’s national team. It was what he did from 1998-2006 that interested Korean supporters and then-Technical Director Lee Yong-soo (aka the man who hired Hiddink). Two years as the assistant coach of the German national team (Stielike was actually a leading candidate to take the top job) before six years’ work at various German youth levels.
Many, including myself, blocked out our skepticism of his shineless resume with this particular sticking point. He oversaw the “golden generation” of German players who won the 2014 World Cup and will undoubtedly be international powerhouses for the years to come, succeeding Spain in the football chronology of dominance. He was their mentor, their trainer, their developer, the man who made these World Cup winning men. Right?
The faux champion of the grassroots
If there was one thing the Korean national team needed right now, it was not only a man with new ideas, but also a man with a proven track record of building the grassroots. Someone to reestablish order in an increasingly hapless football pyramid. And Stielike talked the talk. He identified, as if it was a casual remark on a cursory examination, problems within the youth structure that we’ve been yelling ourselves hoarse about for years. The issues with players taking a lottery ticket to Europe without being properly developed. The issues about players going to university instead of turning pro early. The issues of players not getting a chance to play in the K League for several years after their first pro contract, stagnating their growth. The issues of a domestic league not able to retain its talent, with many opting to go to the Middle East, Japan, and China.
Stielike said that the ideal for him as the new national team boss would be to “have a core of players from one or two K League clubs”. Ironically enough, his final game in charge of the Korean national team probably came closest to that ideal, with Kim Jin-su, Choi Chul-soon, Lee Jae-sung and Kwoun Sun-tae all current or recently turned former Jeonbuk players. Though, save for Lee Jae-sung, they just weren’t very good on the night.
We would later learn that for lack of desire or power (probably both) Stielike would do nothing at all to ameliorate the youth structure of Korean football. He would opine and moan here or there about fundamental issues and the need for fundamental reform, but never seemed to have the traction he needed within the KFA to get that particular job done. He seemed to want a job that he wasn’t hired for.
Whoa, did he just fix our defense? The Asian Cup illusion
Stielike’s first major test as Korean national team boss would be to select and mastermind the squad that would head down under for the 2015 Asian Cup. A number of lead-up friendlies to that tournament revealed a tactical resemblance to Hong Myung-bo’s 4-2-3-1 — cautious, slow, careful, tedious, boring.
But the team churned through. Victories against Paraguay, Jordan, Saudi Arabia – games we can win – and losses to Costa Rica and Iran – games we could be expected to lose. It wasn’t anything to write home about, but it was stable. It wasn’t chaos.
The Asian Cup was strangely timed, 6 months after the World Cup, the first continental tournament of the new World Cup cycle. As such, many, if not all Asian teams were going through a period of relative transition and it would be the first test for many new managers or new groups of players.
Korea were entirely unconvincing to begin with. As to be expected, both of Korea’s first two opponents – Kuwait and Oman – played defense first. Korea dominated possession, and recorded two 1-0 victories in games that were the exact opposite of an offensive spectacle. However, their third 1-0 win – over hosts Australia – showed a different Korean side, who, with the new Ki Sung-yueng – Park Joo-ho double-tandem, seemed able to dictate play, provide an organized, robust midfield to assist Korea’s at-times shaky centrebacks.
Offensively, despite Koo Ja-cheol and Lee Chung-yong going out injured in the first two games, the literally the whole team coming down with the flu, a new star emerged – Sangju Sangmu’s Lee Jeong-hyeop. Raw and entirely unflashy, Lee, a total unknown, called up by Stielike after seeing him at a Jeju training camp, was hailed for his one shining characteristic – work-rate. Just wanting the ball more. A goal against Australia later, Stielike was hailed at “God-tielike” and Lee as “Gunderella (Army-rella)”
And yet those weren’t even the most positive take-aways from the tournament. Kim Young-gwon looked like a new man in Korea’s defense, playing with a confidence and a football IQ never seen from the Guangzhou central defender. Kim Jin-hyeon saved the team on several occasions with determined saves, 1v1 and from distance. It is they who kept Uzbekistan at bay for 120 minutes (and Son Heungmin finally got the goal before Cha Duri assisted his second for a 2-0 quarter-final win). Even the mighty Iran, those stoic, stubborn defensive models, had their defense be their failing before Korea.
Although the final loss against Australia stung (not least because we were beaten by one good long range strike and an extra time winner from one of the defense’s only mistakes of the tournament), Stielike left with plaudits. The team didn’t change radically – apart from Ki Sung-yueng pushing up and being more of an 8 than a 6 – but the results were better. Stielike’s KNT seemed to have nowhere to go but up.
A deceivingly good end of 2015
World Cup qualifiers then began, while July was punctuated by the East Asian Cup. If we had read more into the tea-leaves, perhaps the worrying away results – 2-0 at a neutral venue against Myanmar, 1-0 against Kuwait – would have questioned the team’s ability to adapt to foreign climates. But, the team was its usual self – retaining possession, cautious going forward, but they always found a way to score eventually, so it was okay. It wasn’t exceptional, it was just okay. No goals were conceded throughout the 6 qualifiers Korea played in the year.
The East Asian Cup was also good, with the K League showing its strength against China and North Korea (though they couldn’t beat Ri Myong-neuer) and the team actually getting a trophy, being crowned champions of the summer tournament where domestic players compose the majority of the squads.
What we began to learn more and more about Stielike was that, in terms of the national team, he didn’t have a vision like Cho Kwang-rae did, and he wasn’t going to try and tinker like Choi Kang-hee did. Stielike was just content at playing the most fit players in their positions, in a well understood 4-2-3-1, use Ki & his partner as anchors for the build-up, which would mostly rely on the wide positions combining. Slow, careful, predictable. It seemed more and more that the German boss was much more of a coach than a manager, an encourager than a tactician. Perhaps we weren’t appreciating how he conducted training, or the work he did behind the scenes. Nonetheless, you couldn’t really blame him – the team was winning and doing what it should be doing. Plus, he called up Lee Jae-sung and Kwon Chang-hoon.
Shame against Spain
I think the game in which Stielike’s tactical limitations were best fully exposed was against Spain. Now, no one expected us to beat Spain, certainly not a Spanish side gearing up for the Euro (whereas Korea just needed a friendly). But the now pre-conceived notion that our defense was suddenly remedied was revealed as a blatant lie. Sure, Kim Young-gwon was injured, and sure, many players (including Kim Jin-hyeon) were out of form, but the same positional errors we’ve seen for several years with this generation of Korean players returned to the forefront. They were there all along, they were just exploited.
There’s a word in French – dégringolade – which roughly translates to “rapid, chaotic deteroriation” – which probably best sums up the next phase of World Cup qualifying (the one we’re currently in). Korea was on cloud nine when, despite resorting to the maligned U-passing-shape and playing super wide all the time, they found 3 goals. Zheng Zhi turned one in on a set-piece on his goal, before Lee Chung-yong and Koo Ja-cheol scored similar goals from low crosses to make it 3-0. But China had a riposte, two goals from quite simply weak defending, led by Hong Jeong-ho.
There was plenty of mistakes in that game for Stielike to re-think what was going on with the defense. Too many passing errors – including from Jang Hyun-soo, shoe-horned at right-back, and Kim Ki-hee, who tried way too many passes. And a lack of strength – since when does China get to score from a long throw-in? Win a header!
Nonetheless, the team just wasn’t the same.
The first big jolt came against Syria, when the team managed nothing but a 0-0 draw. Once again, where in the Asian Cup, we were led to believe there was harmony, there was discord. Nothing had really changed. Stielike didn’t have a clue how to beat the kinds of opponents who didn’t break a sweat against our slow attacking style and were content by not letting us score.
The defensive personnel and the result was largely the same against Qatar a month later, when Sebastian Soria muscled his way past our weak defense single-handedly took the Qataris 2-1 up on our own turf. And how about against Iran, when mistakes were made to allow Sardar Azmoun with any space in the box against Iran?
Stielike didn’t have the answers for our weak defense. None at all. And it was about to worsen. In fact, it would have been better if he kept his mouth shut.
When We Knew He Lost The Players
…was when the famous Sebastian Soria incident took place. The frustrating 1-0 loss away to Iran was a tough, but predictable result. The real damage was done when the team’s captain, best player and manager awkwardly but clearly fought in public after Stielike made this baffling comment in Tehran:
In this place (Tehran) no Korean manager, no Korean players have ever won… no team could have won here today, that is the basic reason… We don’t have any strikers such as Qatar’s Sebastian Soria, and this is a problem… The real issue is that Korea’s youth system isn’t fundamentally strong…
Stielike’s hiding behind the youth system, and lamenting that the team didn’t have a certain opposition player, caused quite the calamity in Korean media. Son Heung-min, asked to comment on his manager’s quotes a few hours later, expressed “disappointment”, while Ki Sung-yueng suggested that “foreign managers don’t think the same way we do”.
As I said back when this happened, we knew right then that Stielike had, probably for some time, lost the dressing room. We’ve seen this before in football – when the players no longer want to play for their manager, because they just aren’t on the same page anymore, a team can no longer play to its strengths.
Perhaps, in hindsight, the technical committee should have prepared a back-up plan in case the situation worsened. Instead, they sent Cha Du-ri and Seol Ki-hyeon to the national team, the former which has no coaching experience and the latter, just a couple years’ at a university side.
Kim Shin-wook’s being tall saved Korea from disaster in the final game of 2016, when his aerial presence allowed Korea to mount a dramatic comeback in Seoul against Uzbekistan. They finished the year in second place, but with the locker room disconnected from the manager, who himself was hanging by a thread after an uninspiring set of performances and more than enough PR disasters.
I don’t really feel as though I need to sum up 2017. We lost to China. We lost to Qatar. We’re writing articles about why missing the World Cup might be better for Korean football (I don’t personally agree, but there are very pertinent, valid points being made.) Stielike’s finally gotten the sack, several months too late, with World Cup passage now very incertain with the two most difficult fixtures left (Iran and Uzbekistan away).
Car Crash Management
You don’t win trophies alone.
You do them with a robust coaching staff. People who’ve got your back, who will tell you honest truths that you don’t want to hear, and help you make the best decisions.
Uli Stielike literally brought an Argentinian masseuse (that’s a bit harsh, but he’s better at his previous career as a masseuse than at football) as his lone assistant, Carlos Armua.
None of Hong Myung-bo’s assistants wanted to stay on after Stielike took over, and Shin Tae-yong jumped ship twice, to Rio and then for the U-20 side, while Cha Du-ri only lasted a month. Reports indicate he stubbornly refused external help from the committee who even once offered to bring him an assistant manager from Europe.
The technical committee made mistakes, but Stielike’s close-minded, egoistical ways meant he never wanted to adapt to the modern game, or react to failings on the field. He never took concrete steps to rectify Korea’s two greatest weaknesses – positional issues in defense, and an anemic buildup/transition. They also meant that any assistant to Stielike who genuinely wanted to help this national team couldn’t make themselves influential in the slightest. It’s car crash management.
Stielike also lost the dressing room. And he knew it. Cha Duri’s appointment to the largely non-existent position of “video analyst” was in reality a move to try and reconnect the dressing room to the manager. To build a bridge that seemingly never was built. When Cha resigned in frustration not too long after taking the post, Stielike went to Germany and visited Cha there, desperately trying to convince him to return, but to no avail. I guess that’s what you get when you lament your players for not being as good as an Uruguayan who plays for Al-Rayyan. It’s car crash management.
He suggested the Syria 0-0 wasn’t bad because “we had 16 corners, we were unlucky”, he suggested that the clean sheet against Iraq “was a result of playing 3-4-3 in the first half and 4-2-3-1 in the second”, he suggested that “it is not tactics, but our team spirit that is more important” when the team does well or loses. It’s car crash management.
His tactical sessions consisted of watching Johan Cruyff on repeat for 45 minutes. His press conferences showed him to be passive-aggressive, testy, irritable, annoyed. He promised a witch-hunt on any player trying to disrupt team unity. He spoke all about retaining possession, but when we did nothing with it, he blamed a lack of team spirit. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been cheering on Jurassic Park all this time. A dinosaur view on football. It’s car crash management.
Stielike did not destroy Korean football. But it is precisely his car crash management that mean that so much time to rectify on the pitch issues has been wasted. That the national team has lost its confidence, its spunk, its freaking superiority complex where anything less than a handy win against Qatar is unacceptable. That we know wonder if for the first time in living memory, we won’t, as fans, be able to flood the streets of Seoul or LA or wherever there’s a Korean diaspora to tune in to South Korea at the World Cup.
He may have been the longest serving manager in Korean history, but Uli Stielike’s tenure has been a waste of time. He was the greatest fraudster. He leaves no legacy. He is gone, and it is for the better. Hasta La Vista, Jalgaseyo, Auf Wiedersehen, Uli. You won’t be missed.