2 Asian Champions League matches on Tuesday and another pair to pay attention to on Wednesday – all 4 K-League teams with decent chances to advance out of their respective groups – and later in the kickaround: is Japan and Korea ultimately doomed in their footballing pursuits -simply because of low birthrate trends?
Asian Champions League group play winding down with only 2 more rounds left – who will be left standing?
|URAWA RED DIAMONDS 6:30 AM EST / 7:30 PM Korea||SUWON SAMSUNG FC|
|FC SEOUL 6:30 AM EST / 7:30 PM Korea||GUANGZHOU EVERGRANDE|
|KASHIWA REYSOL 6 AM EST / 7 PM Korea||JEONBUK HYUNDAI MOTORS|
|SEONGNAM FC 6:30 PM EST / 7 PM Korea||BURIRAM UNITED|
- Suwon visit Urawa, the latter hopes to take revenge for a 2-1 loss in February. Suwon are currently runner ups (7pts) to group leaders Bejing Goan (10 pts), while the Reds have struggled in Asia, still looking for their first ACL win this season.
- FC Seoul has seen better days in the league, still licking their wounds from a devastating 5-1 loss to Suwon in the supermatch last weekend. In Asia however, they’ve maintained runner up status to group leaders Guangzhou Evergrande. FC Seoul had a respectable 1-0 loss to Guangzhou in September. Will FC Seoul actually enjoy home field advantage if their supporters don’t show up?
- Jeonbuk may be on top of Group E, but only by a slim 1 goal differential margin, even on points to current runner ups Kashiwa Reysol. That sets up a very interesting battle royale to determine who will own the group. Jeonbuk and Kashiwa wound up with a scoreless draw in their first group match in February.
- Finally, looking at Group F, it’s another clash between 1st and 2nd in the group, Seongnam looking to leapfrog group leaders Buriram. Seongnam came away losing 2-1 in their first encounter with the Thai club.
* as before, viewers seeking to stream the games outside of Korea (particularly in the US) will need to use creative means to tune in.
A while ago as Tavern owner, I wanted to answer these nagging questions: what are best practices with youth development [as in: how does Korea keep on with developing the next Park Ji-Sung, Ki Sung-Yeung, Son Heung-Min, etc?] and what are the issues structurally in Korea that are barriers to youth development preventing future impact players from reaching their fullest potential? To help answer that, let’s do something odd, let’s look at US football – rather codeswitch to soccer. A Washington Post article highlighted a Stanford College sophomore who scored in the US v Mexico game last week. Jordan Morris’ achievement is a bit more unusual in that college students rarely feature for the US national side. In the selection, Jurgen Klinsmann may have been making a statement on the structural problems of US youth development – a complaint that could similarly be levied on Korea. I’ll explain.
I’ve argued in previous Tavern musings that there are interesting parallels between Korea and US, especially with structural hinderances to youth development.
- When players reach a critical juncture, particularly at age 18, instead of suiting up for a professional club, both countries tend to let their players develop at universities and colleges instead.
- Both countries’ domestic professional leagues, with some exceptions, tend not to feature 16-19 year olds. However, according to Jerry McNeal, a coach for Bethesda Soccer club (a club that produced Gedion Zelalem who went to Arsenal) and blogger for WhyNotUSsoccer.com, he argues that world class players (as he defines: players good enough and/or sought by Champions League calibre clubs) by and large break into first teams -or are eased in- and get valuable pro minutes between an age range of 16-18. There’s tons of examples one can cite [Messi (16), Maradona (16), Pele (16), Zidane (17), C. Ronaldo -not the fat one-(17), Son Heung-Min (18), Park Ji-Sung (*late at 19 but close enough)]. *Should Ki Sung-Yeung be sought out by the likes of Liverpool or Real Madrid, he started his professional career at age 17 with FC Seoul. Hell, there’s Klinsmann – the player. He debuted professionally at age 17 – a future Bayern Munich player -and eventually coach.
- I’m not sure the duration of the Korean university football season, but in the US, NCAA soccer is a short fall season – afterwards nothing until the next season. Thus, while there are a diversity of players, some who excel like Morris, add the lack of playing time coupled with competing in an amateur league – it’s a double whammy on youth development.
Thus Klinsmann commented afterward that he would like to see Morris in a pro environment as soon as possible.
“(players like Morris) need to grow quickly because the professional game usually starts at the age of 18 globally.”
The experience of pro time for a youth player is invaluable according to many coaches – even when they falter, they learn and sharpen the pace of their development. For a number of top level coaches, even with the tremendous pressures on them to win – debuting players early on in that 16-18 age span might not garner the maximum amount of points, but pays dividends in the long term.
Further in the article, it’s revealed that Morris actually had a chance to join Seattle with a homegrown contract last fall but turned them down. As it relates to players in the US, the flip side of plying the trade between 16-19 year old –there is the real palpable sense of concern on the part of collegiate players – some of whom are on athletic/academic scholarships. They have to weigh the college degree earned in 4 years VS the chance that they may or may not be successful in their soccer career. And what kind of soccer career? In the MLS, a large pool of players earn paltry salaries, try low 30K (my understanding of K-League salaries is that they are also very low). In Korea, where academic achievement is so highly stressed, it’s quite possible many have been steered away from pursuing football when they may have had potential. The safer middle ground perhaps is to play for a university team – even though it limits their footballing growth. It’s a risky venture to pursue footballing excellence. Imagine Son Heung-min, age 16, leaving home for Hamburg – and actually getting sent back to Korea when HSV academy coaches thought he might not cut it. Fortunately he was recalled back to Hamburg and the rest is still the ongoing story of one of Korea’s most recognizable world class footballers. Undoubtedly there were some incredibly gut wrenching decisions and moments along the way these past 6 years, of weighing the risks and options with the potential that somewhere in that young man, there was an explosive footballing talent waiting to emerge.
-Update: I always forget when talking about youth development structures that it’s not all negative. In spite of the negatives I attributed to the number of players going through a university football route, Korea still manages to produce some excellent youth talent. The past number of youth tournaments indicate Korea is doing well on a certain level, to a certain degree. If you look at the younger-than-18 demographic, somehow the Lee Kang-in’s and Lee Seung Woo’s do manage to make themselves known and sift up through youth ranks. If it’s agreed upon that in the case of both players listed, given they’ve culturally and linguistically adjusted to their new homes (no easy task) their development is greatly enhanced by the learning environment in Valencia & Barcelona respectively – then the question is, for everyone else that is unable to follow them to European academies (especially now given Barca’s trouble with FIFA over youth transfer policies), what can Korea do to improve their structures, from coaching to restructuring the pathways to professional minutes? Back to sounding dour for a moment, I wonder if Korea’s culture/structure has in the past inhibited other potential Lee Seung-Woo’s or Son Heung-Min’s from fulfilling their potential? Every country has room for improvement – Korea certainly in particular areas.
Moving on to the last kickaround topic, another Wash Post article got me thinking about low birthrates in some parts of Asia. Yeah, I’m nerdcore like that – we could discuss other stuff like how to solve the tragic impasse between Jews and Palestinians – but it’s getting late, like 1:10am at the Tavern, so world peace will have to be on hold. This particular article talked about an elementary school in Japan where they don’t even have enough kids to field a school soccer team. 6 kids. Total. In a school that in 1945 held as many as 245. Not that all schools have declining populations, just that many are shifting to urban core centers. Nevertheless, there is another factor at play, low birthrates, and it’s not just in Japan. According to a national study conducted, Korea has a low birthrate of 1.19 children per woman – should that trend continue, Koreans could find themselves extinct by…wait for it…the year 2750. Time to write a new sci-fi book: The Last of the Koreans. It’d be totally kickass, but I digress. I should be alarmed as this is a blog about the current and future of Korean football. How can there be hanguk chugu to write and blog about hundreds of years from now -IF there are no Koreans to speak of? It’s an existential crisis really.
So, if you are Korean, young, don’t have kids, but have a job (enough to sustain a family) you have 2 missions in life.
1. Watch Korean football. or if you’re talented – play the game. Help win the World Cup.
2. [how do I say this?] Have a sexy fun time. And LOTS of it. because the future of Korea and Korean football depends on you. Procreate, like a san toki!
—and yeah, you’re probably going to have to buy a minivan to haul the shitload of kids you will bear to save the Korean population from extinction.
On behalf of all Koreans, past present and future: I salute you. Good night and Good luck. And as the Violent Femmes used to say, luck rhymes with…
PS. I might add I did my part to make sure Koreans do not go extinct. 2 kids AND they both play soccer. Can I get an amen? Ok, so I don’t have like 6 kids and a minivan (2 kids drive me insane/crazy) BUT at least I’ve reproduced. Your turn. 😉
Nice piece. I liked the bit about birth rates. A lot of us in countries like Australia compare ourselves to others per capita and say ‘we’re doing well’, but how many ppl currently at pro sport age would be a more accurate comparison. Sounds like the youth set up in Korea is detrimental. Thanks, for bringing this to light.
I’m glad you chimed in…detrimental yes in one sense. Although Takeuchi always reminds me that youth dev in Korea is not all bad. In some areas they do particularly well. Korea somehow produces the likes of Lee Seung-Woo and Lee Kang-In. Sure they’re in European academies now, but somewhere in Korea for a good part of their life they got training – and as far as I can guesstimate, it was sound.
Can Korea produce more – or have we inhibited other hidden Lee Seung-Woo’s who may have been steered away from football – that’s the thing worth asking.
In the US…oh boy…I think until there’s a real certified footballing culture that has a critical mass of the US behind it – the US will constantly be muddling for improvement. Potential is always there, like a sleeping giant…but when will it awaken? When? I’m growing grey hairs just thinking about it.
I personally hate the comparison to US. US is different beast. For example, the college system is completely broken with their own odd rules (unlimited subs), “pay to play” youth clubs, and MLS clubs recently focusing on youth academy. Different case, different culture, and different problems compared to Korea.
As for Korea, I believe it has the ingredients in place.. just need consistent financial backing. I was working on an article (with the help of Jae but ultimately scrapped) of the importance of K-league Challenge for development of KNT & I still believe it should be the main platform for many youngsters to start their pro-career in Korea (similar to Seo Myun-Won). If you look around the world, successful leagues/nations have flourishing 2nd/3rd division where youngsters are groomed & get their opportunity to move up the ladder. Even in Japan, it helped launch the careers of Park Ji-Sung, Kagawa, Hulk, and etc. It would be nice if “big chaebol” teams have 2nd teams in K-league challenge. Better yet, one of the Hyundai teams should drop to K-league challenge as U-23 squad (similar to Barca B and so forth). Not only will it help K-league in general, but it can also help “citizen” clubs by sharing the wealth of players they groom.
Ah, I knew I should’ve consulted you before writing the post! Good info and perspective there, looks like there’s more of post to amend…
I think it’s important to recognize the difference between ‘youth development’ problems and what you’re addressing in this post Roy. You referenced it in the above comment, and Takeuchi has done so as well before. Korea’s problem, that we’re talking about here, is the issue of transitioning youth players into professional players. Getting them from the club youth systems and into a professional first team. It’s here that Korea is very much lacking as there is no real alternative to the college system. Once a player graduates from high school there aren’t many options (this was especially true when the draft was in place). Signing with a K League team was hard because they would only sign a handful each year, and even then you’d probably just sit on the bench all the time. Challenge wasn’t around and National League and Challengers League are semi-pro/amateur. College was the best option, and in many cases, the only option. To understand why a player may make a decision about college or pro requires a much bigger discussion about social and economic factors beyond the sport itself.
According to the CIA World Factbook, Korea ranks 220 (out of 224 nations) in total fertility rate at 1.25 children per woman.
right – well said and what I label ‘Korean youth development’ in the post is admittedly too broad. It’s the transitioning as you say that’s the crucial area to focus. Though to my defense, it was well past my Tavern bedtime, lol! I’ll see to amending the post wording to reflect this differentiation.
Ah – I just remembered Jae, I thought via twitter there was mention of a (relatively new?) U21 K-League system – a joint combo of Challenge and Classic clubs in regular competition this season? If that’s so, that’s a outlet that could sound like a good idea.
So the CIA assessed the fertility rate 1.25 per woman? Still, Korea ranks low…Korea’s got to get cracking on that metric!
There is the”K League Junior” but that’s for the U18 teams (high school affiliated teams). There used to be a reserve league but it was ended a few years ago.