How We Got Into This Mess

So, with all the comments going on post-Lebanon, I feel the urge to write my personal thoughts about how we ended up in this mess. This is really just my thoughts and feelings. It’s not necessarily based on interviews or facts per se, but it is informed opinion. Of course people are free to disagree and so on. Anyway . . .

“The Disaster in Beirut”

Flash back to the summer 2011. Cho Kwang-Rae is in charge of the national team. His tenure thus far has been fairly successful. Youth has been integrated, the team is playing an attractive passing game, and the feeling is good. Park Chu-Young is seemingly at the peak of his powers. Scoring at will for the national team, and has earned a big move to Arsenal. Ki Sung-Yueng and Koo Ja-Cheol have firmly established themselves as the future. Things are looking good.

Then it all starts to fall apart. The team is destroyed 3-0 by Japan in Sapporo following the devastating tsunami that hit Japan the spring before (a match I always was “fixed” in the sense that there was no way Korea would win that match as Japan was honoring the victims of the tsunami). Losses to Japan are never taken well, but that one really stung. Cho was roundly criticized following the loss.

Then the big blow came. November 2011. Round 3 qualification. Korea travels to Beirut to play Lebanon. Park Chu-Young is out due to yellow card accumulation, and Cho is forced to shuffle his pack. And shuffle it he does with a bizarre starting XI that features Lee Yong-Rae at left back, Hong Jeong-Ho as a defensive midfielder, Lee Keun-Ho as a center forward, and Koo Ja-Cheol as the deep-lying playmaker. It fails spectacularly as Lebanon wins 2-1. The press and fans panic. South Korea, looking comfortable for so long, is now in danger of not moving on. Korea was still top of the group with 10 points, but now Lebanon was also on 10 points. Kuwait, in third place and Korea’s final opponent, had 8. The KFA, who had feuded with Cho in the past, used the loss as means to fire him. It’s announced in December. Two months before the last match of round 3.

Then in January, they announced the hiring of Choi Kang-Hee.

Choi Kang-Hee’s Mandate

Choi’s instructions from the KFA are simple. Get us to Brazil. That’s it. And here, in my opinion, we find the reason why the team is what it is today. Choi’s business with the national team is only for a year and a half. From February 2012 to June 2013. He made it clear from day 1, that he has no interest in going further. That he is not qualified to do so. And both those statements are proving true. But the main point is one way or the other he is not continuing with the national team qualify or not, he will head back to the friendlier confines of Jeonju.

If we step away from the style (or lack thereof) and scorelines (being closer than they should), we see that Choi is doing what he was hired to do. Qualify. Two matches remaining, and the team, however close and uncomfortable it may be, sits top of the group. Should qualification be secured, Choi Kang-Hee will walk away being able to say that he did what he was hired to do. End of story. And for him, that will be enough. For us, not so much.

Cho Kwang-Rae versus Choi Kang-Hee

It’s in their mandate that I find the biggest differences between Choi and Cho. Cho who was hired on a a two-year deal, was supposed to continue the evolution of the team. To re-build it for 2014, whether he would have been ultimately successful is up for debate, but it’s neither here nor now. Choi, as said earlier, was just to qualify. So, he turned to what he knows. K League players, and specifically Jeonbuk players.

While Cho Kwang-Rae was accused of favoring the Europe-based players more, the idea is starting to emerge that Choi Kang-Hee is equally biased towards domestic players. The idea has gained enough traction that Lee Chung-Yong was asked about it at a press conference recently (he denied it). Of course, I think that, true or not, Lee Chung-Yong is smart enough to know to deny it publicly. But it is worth noting that the Europe players, aside from Lee Chung-Yong, have generally not performed near their levels under Cho Kwang-Rae. Key figures for Cho, like Koo Ja-Cheol and Ji Dong-Won have been frightfully poor since his sacking. Coincidence? Possibly. Poor tactical management? Likely. Unfortunately here, there are no clear answers.

Who is to Blame?

So, who can we blame for this mess? The easy answer is Choi Kang-Hee, and while plenty of blame can go to him, for me the real problem is the KFA. Regardless of what you think of Cho Kwang-Rae’s tenure, his sacking was hasty and not thought out. The KFA saw an opportunity and took it. Their reasoning, the poor performances against Japan and Lebanon, is flimsy. Is Korea really a team that can afford to fire a manager after two bad performances? To me the answer is no. Were we really that afraid that we would LOSE to Kuwait in Seoul in the final match. Again, for me the answer is no.

The reason I think that the KFA is really to blame, is they could have easily let Cho finish the last game and then just not extended his contract. Period. Then they could hire someone without the panic and pressure they experienced. Choi Kang-Hee was a pressure hire. They fired Cho without having a clear idea of who would take over after him. So, all of a sudden, they found themselves in a situation where they needed someone. And the only person they could convince was Choi. And in their haste, they made a bad deal. They hired a person who didn’t want the job, and who wasn’t qualified. Someone who had a short-term outlook, and no concerns about the future.

As for Choi Kang-Hee, I am certainly (to put it nicely) less than thrilled with his performance. But in hindsight, should we really be surprised? Choi is a career K Leaguer. He played in the K League. He managed in the K League. His only international exposure is two years as an assistant manager (one with the U23 team and one with the senior side). With this resume is it surprising that he is having difficulty coping with the modern international game? Integrating players from all over the world who have little training time together. Dealing with higher expectations from a demanding press and fan base. Breaking down well organized defenses. These are things that he does not have to deal with in the K League.

Combine these factors with a team that seems to be very young or very old, and it’s a just a mess. Lee Dong-Gook, Kwak Tae-Hwi are past it. Son Heung-Min, Koo Ja-Cheol, and Ki Sung-Yueng are all fairly young. Who can we rely on for veteran leadership? Who can rally the players together when things are tough? Can Koo Ja-Cheol do it? U23 captain Hong Jeong-Ho? In Korea’s strict sunbae-hoobae (seniority) relationship it’s difficult to image them giving commands to the likes of Lee Dong-Gook and Kwak Tae-Hwi. Someone needs to emerge as a leader, but it’s hard for me to imagine who.

 Possible Solutions

Really it’s to hope and pray (for now). Hope and pray that we can squeak through qualifying these next two weeks. After that, the KFA MUST make a plan, and hire a coach that has a clear vision. We must have a way to cycle the older generation out of the team and incorporate the younger players without there being a complete shock to the system. In this regard, Italy may be the best example to look at. Older veteran players are still welcome if they are performing at a high level, but the younger generation of players are clearly becoming the backbone of the team.

Ultimately, it will take time, planning, and patience. I hope that the KFA is willing to commit to the necessary steps to make this happen.

About Jae Chee 339 Articles
A football fan who got bit by the writing bug.


  1. Personally, I think CKH is a symptom of the larger problem of Korean soccer becoming less competitive on the international stage. There was an interview on YP Lee earlier this year ( sorry to all non-Korean speakers), and he explicitly stated that Korean soccer lags behind that of Japan, and while all other countries recognize this fact, only Koreans refuse to acknowledge it. (Btw, YP Lee is not the typical athlete in that he is only good at sports and nothing else; if you read his book and listen to him speak, you can see that he thinks deeply on subjects beside sports.)

    I think the larger problem that is afflicting the NT is attitude. In the interview, YP Lee stated that one of the weaknesses of Korean soccer players (in his view) is weak mentality. He stated that European players are not afraid to play against higher ranked teams, and they don’t disrespect lower ranked teams. In contrast, Koreans seem to think that mentality consists only of being able to play through pain when injured. I think the NT and the country as a whole have come to take success on the international stage for granted, leading to the belief that when playing against weaker teams, the NT will emerge with a win regardless of effort (I understand excluding Yun Suk-Young and Park Chu-Young from the squad, but not Koo and Ki).

    Certainly, the squad that faced Lebanon was the B squad and not the A squad. However, if the Korean NT is so good as people believe it is, then the B squad shouldn’t have struggled to get a tie as they did (does Lebanon even have a player as accomplished as Lee Dong-Gook or Kwak?). The same can be said for the match against Qatar when the team that included both Ki and Koo eked out a win at the 97th or so minute. As inept as CKH is, the NT, with all their talent, shouldn’t struggle to win against such teams like Lebanon, Qatar, Uzbekistan, etc.

    A disastrous consequence of coming to take success for granted is that necessary changes aren’t being made because the Korean NT seems to be doing so fine with the status quo. One such necessary change is military exemption for athletes. I think it’s a shame that Park Chu Young felt he had to do what he did in order to keep playing in Europe and not rot away his prime years like Lee Keun-Ho at the moment. And I really shudder to think that Son may be forced to do something like Park because lawmakers and commentators can’t see that there exist better ways of serving the country outside of the military. (Another change is slowing down the transfers of Korean players in the K-league to the J-league.)

    I’m not saying that the two aforementioned problems would be the solution to the bad form of the NT. And even as mind-boggling as CKH’s decisions are, blaming the person in charge is a manifestation of Korean impatience and preference for quick solutions. As aforementioned, the larger problem is that of attitude. If we continue to think that the NT is so good that we refuse to acknowledge the effort of other countries to become more competitive. and therefore refuse to make changes to stay competitive. then I think that such results against teams like Qatar and Lebanon will become more commonplace, and the gap between S. Korea and Japan (not to mention top European and S. American countries) will grow only wider.

    • I’m incredibly appreciative of your comment. It shouldn’t be controversial to bring up military conscription as a huge factor into the KNT’s problem with competing internationally, and yet it is nearly taboo to bring up the subject. Sure, North Korea is a legit security issue, but there is no rationale for the intractability that discourages discussing ways to balance nat’l security concerns along with advancing the competitiveness of the KNT football program. They are not mutually exclusive. For those who would call it unpatriotic to bring up the subject, why then did S Korea even bother with hosting the 2002 World Cup? If that international goodwill created was an illusion, if football is purely inconsequential with no diplomatic intn’l value or socially uplifting worth, why bother supporting the KNT at all or allow the KFA to spend money in efforts to qualify for the next WC? There is an absolute disconnect: some Koreans support the KNT on one hand while leaving them hanging when there is a need for a public consensus to come up with a creative solution to the problem of having the Asian Player of the Year in Lee Keun-Ho waste talent in Sangmu — when he could serve his country by playing at his fullest potential professionally in the international arena (and ultimately for his country on the KNT). The military conscription issue HAS to be tackled head on in order for the KNT and Korean football to reverse their downward trend. Preview of a to-be-published article soon, I’ve come across some interesting ideas that other countries with mandatory conscription puts into practice to balance nat’l security AND furthering their national football ambitions. It can be done.

      • That of course, doesn’t address the exciting potential that the Koreans in the youth academies at Barcelona, Valencia and several others have -and have already displayed. It’s not hyperbole to say they could be epic game changers for the KNT. Then again, the military conscription issue still directly affects them – and thus another great reason to tackle the issue head on, sooner rather than later.

    • Indeed there are certainly other factors in play, and that could harm the national team’s future. The military issue, player mentality, and player movement towards Japan are things that need to be addressed, but have been issues for awhile (although the Japan thing is newer). The article was more of a brief look at events that have transpired within the past year+. It was also sort of a response to people who seem to think that a change in manager would instantly solve all our problems (by pointing out that the KFA would still represent a problem).

      I do think that the Korean mindset and way of thinking is a problem. Criticism is not taken well (especially when it doesn’t come from the top) and problems and solutions are generally not talked about. Korea’s obsession with ‘image’ is also a major hurdle. One does feel that as long as the NT looks like they’re doing well (going to the World Cup and not embarrassing themselves) the KFA will not feel the need to change anything. It doesn’t matter if Korean youths are not meeting their full potential or if talented players are getting cut down in their prime for military service. But, I think this is a discussion for another time (maybe another article after qualification is over).

  2. I’m not here to add my two cents or bring anything constructive to the table. Just want to add to the rant and say I wholeheartedly agree with the military issue. I can’t think of a country specific issue for any other footballing country similar to ours. The military thing is a major major distraction for the players. Does the Korean public in general not agree?

    I think service should be waived not only for those in the national team, but every player in the K-league, even the 2nd division, and that should be for all sports. They should be placed on reserve and within a special program in case of military emergency. After all, most semi-professional athletes are way fitter and disciplined than those tobacco head, drunkard, nalari’s that end trapped in the greatest sausage party ever.

    I’m really no expert on the subject but the way they handle the issue is a thing of spastic monkeys.

    • The only country that I can think of that’s similar is Israel. In general the public acknowledges the distraction, but overwhelmingly feel that the military service is more important barring some great service to the nation (Olympic medals and so forth).

      The idea of putting all athletes on a reserve list is a non-starter here. It would never fly with the public.

      • I’m quite sure it wouldn’t fly!

        I have seen in their eyes. A mix of hatred and jealousy against those that didn’t have to go, because they felt robbed of 2-3 years of sex and booze among other things.

        I do apologize on a personal note if you had to go. Or if anyone here did. Don’t mean to offend, just trying to make a point iz all.

          • Great!
            You’ve not only avoided the military but having to study and work all day for scraps in one of the most socially repressive places in the world.

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