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.
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.