Throughout the recent international break, in between sweating at Kim Seung-gyu’s flappy hands, scratching my head at Jung Woo-young’s passing, and wondering what Yang Dong-hyun must have been thinking sitting in front of his TV, my mind kept wondering back to the announcement of Shin Tae-yong’s squad. Running through the list of names, what caught my eye as much as anything was the current clubs of the players included. Of the initial twenty three players named, only five currently play in Europe (and one of those was an injured captain just brought along for moral support). To put that in perspective, the Japanese squad boasted fifteen players currently on the European continent. Considering the KNT’s recent performances, those are some potentially worrying numbers.
It’s clear that change is needed before next summer if a repeat of 2014’s limp World Cup exit is to be avoided. A new manager is in place and there’s plenty of time for tactics, personnel and performances to improve, and perhaps the most important thing to remember for now is that Korea WILL be at the next World Cup. It’s a point that many Korean supporters have started to take for granted given the country’s excellent qualifying history, but it’s still a fine achievement. If you’re not sure, ask stay-at-home African champions Cameroon, or anyone in the Netherlands, USA, Argentina or Chile, all of whom are in real danger of missing next summer’s party.
It may be worth taking a look, though, at the career paths of players hoping to wear Taeguk tigers over their hearts in Russia. In the latest FIFA World Rankings, Japan were ranked five places above Korea. Going by recent meetings between the two and their respective results in international competitions, it’s clear that the rivalry between the two nations is still very evenly matched. So why is Korea so under-represented in Europe while Japanese players are finding considerably more opportunities?
It seems to be a common theme these days for the K-League’s best players to be plucked by teams from Japan, China and the Middle East for a bumper pay-packet and perhaps a greater chance of recognition from onlookers and attention from scouts. But the sorry truth for players leaving the K-League is that there appears to be hardly any step up in quality in rival Asian leagues. Of course, it’s impossible to accurately gauge the overall quality of a league, but going by results in the Asian Champions League, it’s been quite clear over the past few years that Korean teams are in no immediate danger of being left behind, despite the league having just a fraction of the money of certain others.
For most players in Asia, playing in Europe is the ultimate dream. The English Premier League and the Bundesliga are considered to be two of the best leagues in the world, and there have been a smattering of Korean players in these leagues over the past few years, but recently the number of Korean players getting regular minutes appears to have decreased. Apart from Son Heung-min and Ki Sung-yeung in England, and Koo Ja-cheol and Ji Dong-won in Germany, there has been very little to shout about.
Lee Chung-yong is a prime example of the problem. Although many will look upon the dreadful back-pass in his recent start for Crystal Palace as the final nail in his career coffin, he’s still a player with plenty to offer for clubs at a certain level. While there may be unknown factors behind his decision not to move to a club where he would play regularly, his is still a baffling situation when you consider how close the World Cup is.
Kim Bo-kyung is another whose career hasn’t panned out as hoped. In the 2013-14 season, he made 21 Premier League starts and scored a goal against Manchester United. Now 27 and in his prime, he finds himself back in the J-League where he started. It would be bold to suggest that Kim could be a regular starter at a Premiership club, but you would think that, like Chungy, there would at least be a handful of Championship clubs who would snap him up.
Nam Tae-hee is another who seems to be on the wrong tracks altogether. After being crowned the Qatar Stars league’s best player this summer (ahead of former Barcelona legend Xavi) he’s less a big fish in a small pond and more a whale in a puddle. Nam is clearly capable of playing at a higher level, and yet he’s just made a move to a rival club (Al-Duhail) in the same league, instead of moving somewhere that might stretch and develop him. Whether that’s because of a lack of offers elsewhere or other circumstances out of his control, it’s unclear. But whatever the case, at 26 years old, it’s frustrating to say the least.
There are others. Hong Jeong-ho moved to China despite proving himself to be an able Bundesliga centre-back. Suk Hyun-jun was playing and scoring regularly in the competitive Portuguese league, but he left it all behind to move to the best team in the country where he was never likely to get many minutes. Past-his-peak Park Chu-young has now found his level again at Seoul, but it should also be remembered that he was flying at Monaco before making a near career-ending move to Arsenal.
His path is a reminder that European jaunts should not be taken into lightly. Yun Suk-young and Kim Jin-su are two players to have recently moved back to Asia after struggling to lock down places in European teams. Going further back, Lee Dong-gook and Kim Do-heon are examples of players who were too good for the K-League in their prime, but failed to make a lasting impression in England’s top tier. To their credit, at least they all found their way to clubs where regular football was likely and didn’t give up on the game altogether (Park Joo-ho, I’m talking to you).
Of course, there are any number of factors involved in player transfers, and it just so happens that many of these factors do not necessarily favour Korean players. Perhaps the most significant is the complex issue of military service that looms like a cloud over the careers of young Korean players. Japanese players, of course, have no such burden, so you can understand the concerns of potential recruiters when the words ‘Sangju’ and ‘Sangmu’ first get brought up in discussions. Throw this into the bag with work permit issues and the language barrier (both of which played a part in Kim Bo-kyung’s troubles in England) and you have a lot of potential for problematic negotiations.
As always, Korea will rely heavily on their international stars once the World Cup comes round. Ki, Son, Koo, Ji and Hwang Hee-chan will expect regular showings with their current clubs this season, but others need to make the step up. Lee Chung-yong will need a sharp upturn in minutes for Crystal Palace; otherwise, we can expect (or hope for) a January loan move to a Championship club. Kwon Chang-hoon is still very much an unpolished talent, but his early appearances with Dijon in France this season have suggested that he’ll be involved regularly and will likely chalk up a few goals and assists. Suk Hyun-jun’s move to Troyes in Ligue 1 also looks like a promising move on paper, and there’s a quietly optimistic buzz about youth team graduates like Lee Seung-woo (Hellas Verona), Lee Jin-hyun (Austria Wien), Paik Seung-ho (Girona) and Choi Kyung-rok (St. Pauli) as the European seasons get underway.
As for the other players hoping to make the World Cup squad, Korean fans can only hope that more opportunities present themselves and sensible decisions are made. What we don’t want to see is players like Lee Jae-sung hopping across the East Sea when they get bored of running rings around Korean defences. After all, the best Japanese players are all finding their way into European teams. Just look at the current roster of Korean goalkeepers: it seems that the best case scenario for Korean gloves these days is to get a gig in the J-League. Meanwhile, Japanese number one Eiji Kawashima said sayonara to his homeland back in 2010 and has spent the past seven years in Belgium, Scotland and now France.
Moving to Europe doesn’t have to mean Premier League or bust. There are plenty of leagues and teams out there that could advance the careers of dust-gathering Korean talents without seeing them wasting away on the bench. Take a bow, then, Hwang Hee-chan, one of the country’s finest prospects and currently playing in a respectable league that was recently a career springboard for the likes of Sadio Mane and Naby Keita. If more Korean players could find homes in competitive leagues outside of the so-called ‘Big Five’, the future of the national team might start looking a whole lot rosier.