After the 1-2 loss to Uruguay, Kim Min-jae shook the Korean footballing world by stating the following.
“좀 힘들고, 멘탈적으로도 많이 무너져있는 상태고… 그냥 축구적으로 힘들고 몸도 힘들고 그렇기 때문에 대표팀보다는 소속팀에만 신경 쓰고 싶어서…”– Kim Min-jae in mix zone following 1-2 loss to Uruguay
The quote, loosely translated, “I’m a bit tired, mentally I’m exhausted. Just… on the football side and physically I’m tired. Because of that I’m rather pay attention only on my club team more so than the national team.”
The fallout was immediate and severe. People questioned whether Kim Min-jae was contemplating retiring from the international team. People questioned his loyalty to the team. People told him to get lost. To just retire.
Enter Son Heung-min
“Playing for your country, wearing the South Korea national football team uniform is always an honor and source of pride. Playing at home again after a long time, I could feel the love that football is receiving. To you all, I wasn’t able to give you an awesome win as a gift, but I will continue to work towards making a better team in the future. Thank you to everyone who has cheered for us the past 10 days. I’ll see you at the stadium again.”– Son Heung-min’s Instagram post
Things were compounded by Son Heung-min later posting on his Instagram about his pride in wearing the national team shirt and what an honor it was. People picked up that the two no longer seemed to follow each other on Instagram (online chatter was that Kim Min-jae had blocked Son Heung-min because of the aforementioned post). After a few hours the two could be seen following each other again – indicating a conversation had been had and the two had resolved the issue between them.
The KFA’s comments
The KFA for their part attempted to put out the fire by stating that there had been conversations with Kim Min-jae regarding excluding him (at his request) from national team call ups due to fatigue. However, they (and Klinsmann) convinced him to be a part of the call ups this time around.
My personal thoughts
The actual drama itself seems overdone to me personally. But, I’ll explain a bit more.
I think the actual content of Kim Min-jae’s comments are perfectly fine and legitimate. Travelling back and forth from Italy to Korea for international breaks is exhausting. It’s a long flight, there is a major time difference, and so on. I’m sure he is tired. He starts almost every match for Napoli and the national team.
This is on the back of an odd and unusually busy year with the winter World Cup. Usually Serie A takes a short winter break for recovery, but there was none of that. Plus the World Cup means that the league and other competitions have had to push those games into other parts of the year further packing the schedule. Napoli (unlike a certain other team) is still in the Champions League as well and has a very good shot at making the finals given the teams in their bracket (Inter, Milan, and Benfica).
The transfer rumors were brought up and that’s a bit nonsense. However, I do get that, at age 26, Kim Min-jae is likely acutely aware that the next few months could be hugely significant to him in terms of a transfer and next contract. If he does play well in the Champions League with the eyes of the world watching him in those big matches, he is likely to have his final chance to play at a (and with all due respect to Napoli – even though I don’t like Napoli at all) super-level club (e.g., Madrid, Liverpool, Bayern, etc.) and land the biggest contract of his career.
So, it makes a lot of sense not to make the long flight to Korea to play two friendlies against Colombia and Uruguay. What if he did get bit by the “FIFA bug”? What if he did miss significant time and the Champions League? For what? To make an impression for Klinsmann (who likely already knows his value)?
I didn’t take Kim Min-jae’s comments as saying anything like, I don’t care about the national team. I don’t care about my country. I took them as, these are friendlies that have no bearing on the World Cup or the Asian Cup, and it’s not necessary for me to play in every national team game. I have massive games coming up for my club, and that’s what I want to focus on my energy on. I get that playing for the national team is an honor. I get patriotism. I get that Korea is hyper-nationalistic.
Could he have done better?
So, the fallout was predictable. And because it was so predictable, it would have been nice if Kim Min-jae had expressed his frustrations and concerns in a better way. My initial reaction to it all was, Kim Min-jae had likely been talking to the KFA about it, but they had insisted he turn up. I’m not sure if the rule regarding call ups and refusals is still there, but if it is and the KFA threatened to use it if Kim Min-jae ignored a call up, then I can understand if he felt the need to publicly air the issue to gain some leverage. Although, at the same time it is difficult to imagine a situation where his comments would be publicly well-received. The football national team has a certain mystical status to it. The idea of a player not wanting to play for it is… unfathomable.
My disappointment with Son Heung-min
I am not particularly impressed with Son Heung-min’s reaction to the situation. I don’t know if his post was aimed at Kim Min-jae or not. But regardless, the timing is certainly suspicious. When a teammate has publicly stated how they’re tired and want to focus on their club at the moment, and then you – as team captain – post about how proud you are to wear your country’s shirt and what an honor it is? It is certainly eyebrow raising. Regardless of Son Heung-min’s intentions, it sends a message. To me that message was, “I love the national team, and I guess Kim Min-jae doesn’t.”
The issue is that he’s team captain. The underlying message was, “I’ll throw you under the bus if I don’t agree with what you say/do.” This is just my personal opinion, but to me the team captain’s primary responsibility is to represent the players. He is the face and representative of the team – the players – not the KFA and not the country. If he’s pissed at Kim Min-jae’s comments, he should’ve dealt with them privately. He should be aware that his status in the country (and internationally) compounds the issue.
Even if he did feel the need to express his disappointment with Kim Min-jae’s comments, I think he could have at least soften it a little by trying to minimize or play down Kim Min-jae’s words or offering a potentially less ‘shocking’ interpretation. Given the time difference between Kim Min-jae’s interview and his post he was surely aware of how it may be interpreted and how the public and media was reacting.
This is why, when we wrote the post on whether Son Heung-min should continue as captain, I was positive towards handing it to Kim Min-jae. Now, I don’t think that’ll ever happen anymore. If it does pass from Son Heung-min it will probably go to Hwang In-beom or the like. Anyway, I didn’t (and now more so) think that Son Heung-min is a leader. A leader should’ve recognized the situation and at least tried to shield a player from his team (and a very key player at that), even if he didn’t approve of the comment.
Kim Min-jae’s apology post
Predictably, Kim Min-jae posted an apology post on his Instagram account.
I won’t translate the full thing (because it’s quite long). Basically, he apologized to the fans and his teammates for his “surprising” comments. He said he did a poor job of explaining himself and what he’s going through. He went on to talk about how he’s never feigned an injury or complained about the long flights or his physical condition when he gets called up. He’s always played to his utmost and given his everything. That over time the burden and weight of playing for the national team has grown. The sense of disappointment and responsibility he feels as a defender weighs significantly on him. Those are the things he was trying to convey in the interview.
I don’t think his apology will take because he specifically mentioned the focusing more on his club team and that wasn’t addressed here. (Also glancing over the articles written and the reaction emojis people are leaving indicates the public isn’t particularly placated).
For those that pay attention, I’ll note that Son Heung-min’s post does not seem to have any likes or comments from other players. On Kim Min-jae’s post, a handful of national team players like Hwang In-beom, Paik Seung-ho, Na Sang-ho, and Lee Seung-woo (okay, he’s not a current NT player) left comments in support of him. (For the record, Son Heung-min did like the post as well).
Hopefully, with the next national team games not until the summer, there is time for this to blow over and be resolved. I suppose Napoli’s progress in (or not) the Champions League could be a good indicator of how the public’s mood towards Kim Min-jae is. Making the semis or finals (or winning it?) should be a major moment for Korean football fans. Hopefully things improve because the team certainly needs Kim Min-jae.
This post is just my reaction to it. I don’t know if the others will have a chance to add to it. Jinseok briefly talked about his reaction in his post on the Uruguay match itself.
More important things
More than this, what we need to talk about is the KFA rather quietly pardoning 100 individuals, who had received bans or punishment from the sport. Many of these individuals were a part of the 2011 match fixing scandal that rocked the K League (and damned near killed the league). A post on this will be coming soon.