Mini-update: Hwang Hee-chan

I mentioned it briefly in Evelyn’s ‘Midweek Listings’ post, but I suppose it’s worth mentioning again. Hwang Hee-chan has officially signed his first professional contract, but with Austrian-club Red Bull Salzburg, not Pohang Steelers.

The fact that Hwang signed overseas wasn’t terribly surprising. In our K League podcast, Jinseok mentioned that it looked likely that Hwang would move abroad. But the nature of his move has generated a bit of controversy here.

Basically, Hwang went out on his own and signed the deal with RB without the knowledge (or consent) of Pohang. Pohang stated that they learned about the deal by seeing articles on the internet. The club is, understandably, quite upset with how things have transpired. Since Hwang had not signed a pro-contract with them, there is virtually nothing they can do about the situation. The club’s only claim comes from the fact that he was part of their youth team setup. I’m not entirely clear on the legal specifics, but I imagine (as said previously) that the situation is similar to when European clubs (read: English clubs) snap up young players from other teams’ youth systems before they sign professional deals. A small fee will be paid to Pohang, and that will be it. It most likely will certainly not be what Hwang is likely worth.

The time since Salzburg announced the deal + Pohang’s statement about it, has not revealed too much new information, but the general feel here seems to be widespread condemnation for Hwang, mainly with regard to how he did the deal. ‘Rash’ seems to be a common theme among the articles written here. They tend to portray Hwang as a young player with dreams of Europe who simply jumped at the first chance he got, regardless of whether it was a good choice or if it was done properly.

The other result of Hwang’s choice, and a more concrete consequence, is that he will be subjected to the K League’s five-year ban for not signing his first professional contract with a K League club. Hopefully it is not something that will affect his career much, but you never know. A best-worse case scenario is one where Hwang fails to make it with Salzburg, and spends the next five years bouncing around smaller lower league clubs in Europe. Perhaps he could find himself in a similar situation as Sagan Tosu’s Kim Min-woo. A player who went on trial with PSV (while a player with Yonsei University) only to fail and find himself on the outs back home. Kim’s story seems to be turning out okay, but there are no guarantees.

Personally, I have conflicting thoughts about the move. It is not my place to tell a talented, young player that he should not move to Europe and should stay in Korea, but I do feel a tinge of regret that Hwang opted to depart before he ever really showed the country what he could do. The league (and Pohang) are in need of quality attackers, and Hwang could have been a wonderful addition. As a fan of the league, I always lament the fact that so many are so quick to try and get away from it (this is probably worth a separate post).

Salzburg seems a decent choice of team for Hwang to “get his feet wet” with. It’s away from the high-pressure, bright-lights of the bigger leagues and that will hopefully give him time to bed in (and play). Assuming Hwang does well during his initial time with FC Liefering (where he’ll initially go), Salzburg does offer the chance for Hwang to possibly experience European football, as Salzburg will virtually always finish in one of Austria’s European spots.

Hopefully everything will work for Hwang Hee-chan and for Pohang.

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


  1. I can’t say I sympathize with Hwang. While it’s simplistic to say it this way, it bothers me mostly because it seems to screw over a K-League team who apparently invested something into him and another naive non-White kid giving a nice discount to the White man for his services. Again, it’s simplistic to put it that way and not completely fair (if at all), but it sure seems like it from the outside looking in.

      • yea, it’s harsh, but i qualified my statement indicating that i’m being simplistic.

        as for tim, i disagree. just because hwang doesn’t realize the impact of his move has little to do with in analyzing who benefits and what the impact is on larger scale. my point was less about race, though that’s still a part of it, i would argue in terms of power dynamics between leagues and clubs, but more to do with how the situation gives off a colonialistic vibe. it’s a little like HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) athletics and black owned businesses. segregation was terrible, but when integration came around, who actually benefit the most? white institutions ended up making all the dough and pretty much ruining black businesses. sure, the black kid wanting to go to alabama to play football is understandable and i can’t begrudge that, but that doesn’t mean i’m blind to the fact that alabama as is most colleges in the US very much white institutions. i don’t think it was intentional, but it’s part of the colonialistic system at play. if you read my original comment carefully, i’m not sympathizing with hwang, but i’m not laying all the blame on him so much as describing the big picture of what it seems like to me, again, from the outside looking in. i put that qualification in intentionally to indicate i could be wrong.

    • Not to open this can of worms, but it’s got nothing to do with white v Asian?

      Although perhapsHwang should have had a discussion with Pohang before fleeing to Europe, you can’t blame him for seizing the opportunity to head to what could be the beginning of a fantastic footballing career in Europe. Put yourself in his shoes. Pohang or red bull Salzburg?

      • Technically it’s Pohang or FC Liefering. There are no guarantees that he’ll ever see the pitch with Salzburg. Anyway, you can’t blame him for seeking an opportunity in Europe, but it does feel backhanded the way he did it. Pohang has invested considerable money and effort in helping him develop (I think he’s been in their youth system for six-years), and for him to suddenly leave and deny them financial compensation in the form of a transfer fee is a bit low.

    • I don’t think it’s white vs non-white in this case, but I wouldn’t be surprised if RBS used the fee as a small leverage stick against Hwang. A “look right now there’s no fee, so we can bring you in, but if you sign a pro deal and we need to negotiate with Pohang, who knows? Maybe they’ll play hard ball and keep you there for several years.” kind of thing.

      • I personally hate this move. As expected, he will play with their reserve team (basically collection of youth players from all Red Bull owned teams). I wonder if this was his only option in Europe…

        Takumi Minamino, should he join Hwang Hee-Chan at Red Bull Salzburg…. will go straight to their 1st team..

        • I think the feeling is that it was his first option and he just jumped at it without really thinking. That being said it’s probably the best he can hope for. He’s talented but nowhere near ready for 1st team action in Europe. Going to a bigger team would likely result in him just training with squad and sitting in the stands.

          • Difficult for me to believe it was his 1st option. He is being represented by this agency.. (I feel like they are becoming Thomas Kroth/Pro Profil for Korea). Considering they are German based, I’m sure he had offers or were offered to clubs in Bundesliga. However, Red Bull Salzburg can trump most Bundesliga clubs in wage they can offer……. I’m sure this was a key factor in his decision.

          • True, perhaps a better phrasing would be it was his “first good option”. I wonder how much he was offered. I remember when Ryu SW turned down Dortmund the offered wage was a key reason given.

        • 1. I am indifferent. He made a massive dick move yet in the end I think he’ll turn out okay
          2. Minamino has pro experience, sure but how are you so sure he’d go to the first team

        • Another one of my problems with our system. Japanese players get to go pro whenever the hell they want. Why do we have the HS system and the draft and everything where no one goes pro under the age of 18? Minamino is a full year older than HHC but already has two full pro seasons under his belt.

          In the end I’m certain within a season HHC will be a started for RBS, so w/e let’s see how this works out

          • I think that’s why Takeuchi thinks he’d go into the first team. Minamino already has two years (where’s he’s started and played) for a top-flight team in a respected league.

        • Echoing sentiments expressed here already, it’s not a dream transfer, and yeah, Pohang did put in something for his training…but at the end of the day, with the status quo in Korea usually meaning that Hwang (who is 18 & turning 19 in mid January) might not see significant pro minutes until years later, there doesn’t appear to be anything fundamentally wrong in trying to seek this european opportunity. I think he could’ve/should’ve gone to a German team, but we’ll have to see how this pans out. Austrian league? well Park Joo-Ho initially going to swiss side FC Basel turned out ok for him since he eventually landed at Mainz.

          Don’t mean to dismiss the Hwang controversy, but his case should raise bigger picture questions about the state of youth training/system in Korea. In some respects, Korea mimics the worst aspects of the US youth to MLS system -not that it’s all bad, but let’s look at the parallels:

          1. like in the US, Korean teen players are largely playing in HS & university programs instead of academy & pro teams. (the difference being that univ squads are somewhat attached to k-league clubs – I don’t think that’s the case in the US). At age 17 & 18, for players to maximize their potential, they should be starting to rotate into pro squads (or playing 2nd or 3rd tier pro ball) but that mostly doesn’t happen in the US and in Korea until several years later. Paraphrasing Takeuchi, those same 17-18 year olds in Japan (or for that matter, anywhere else like in Spain or Germany) have an advantage on a number of levels over US and Korean HS & university players. US and Korean players are largely behind the 8 ball at this stage.

          2. like in the US, the K-league has a draft system to draw upon graduating university players. Problem w/ draft system? See point #1

          • University squads are not affiliated with K League teams, but elementary/middle/high schools are. Granted Korea is not to the level of most European teams, but Pohang is quite well-respected for their youth set up.

            The draft system is done. This year’s draft was the last one. And besides, the draft itself is not a problem. It’s the level of play/coaching that generally exists at the university level. A better look at the draft would probably be MLB where teams can draft high school or college players.

            Again people seem to miss the ‘controversy’ here. It’s not that Hwang signed with a European club, it’s HOW he did it. From the few quotes I’ve seen, Pohang made it clear to Hwang they wanted him to sign and that he had a role with the first team next season. Hwang initially seemed to go with it, but suddenly RB Salzburg announced they had signed a five-year deal with Hwang. Like Jinseok said, it was a “dick move”.

          • Hmm…well, it’s like you say then, ‘there’s a twinge of regret’ that some locally honed talent can’t see enough incentive to stay and showcase that in the K-league.

            Let me get this right, Hwang was promised a role for Pohang next season – ok (to simply play contrarian role) would there be any reason for skepticism on Hwang’s part on hearing that from Pohang given that in general (and maybe I’m incorrect here but my understanding is ) most 18 year olds don’t get significant K-league minutes ?

            Look, the ‘how’ of the controversy is something significant for sure – it looks on paper like a dick move no doubt -but I’ll simply project what I think is going through his mind – Hwang feels there is an opportunity to be the best footballer he can be – thus the move. Could he have told Pohang about it? Maybe, but shouldn’t that have been his agent’s responsibility?

            Separate from that – I do think Pohang should be upset – at the very least they should get compensated for training Hwang via proper transfer fees -and perhaps there will be a revised deal. When I first heard the Pohang part of the story, my first thought: is there a black hole where there’s no real codified way of dealing with transfers & rights associated with university players who’s had some background training with kleague clubs? Anyways, no matter how you slice it, this ‘transfer’ has become messy.

            as to your observation on subpar play and coaching in Korea’s universities being a bigger problem than draft – sure, I’ll buy that – but not to sound all bleak (I’m an eternal optimist- can’t you tell?) it’s still very troubling. Systems got to change.

            Do you know what is replacing the draft system in Korea after 2015?

          • ‘Promise’ may be a strong word, but my understanding is the Hwang Sun-hong and the Pohang team president both spoke with Hwang Hee-chan about his future with the team and sought to give him assurances. What exactly those assurances were, I’m not sure.

            Generally yes, few 18-year olds get any minutes, much less a significant amount in the K League, but that could change, and perhaps Hwang HC could have been a groundbreaker in that regard. As far as I know, the rules for players like Hwang HC are the same as they are for any other youth team player in the world. If they choose to sign a professional contract in another country where it’s legal (at their age) then a small compensation fee is due to the other club. The university aspect is irrelevant, they have no legal rights to Hwang. I suspect Pohang will file a complaint with the AFC/UEFA/FIFA whoever has jurisdiction, who will then set some compensation amount for Salzburg to pay, but it will be significantly less than what Pohang could have gotten as a straight up transfer fee.

            Nothing will replace the draft system. Korea will operate like most other nations. Youth teams and just signing up whoever they want/can afford.

  2. Really? I didn’t know about Kim Min-Woo’s trial with PSV but that’s enough for him to be ousted? I find that to be extremely petty…

    • Yeah, in my J League research I came upon an article from when Kim MW signed with Tosu that mentioned it. I forgot to mention in the post though that Kim did not tell Yonsei he was going on trial with PSV, he just left (kind of like Hwang). Regardless, it still seems a bit petty to expel him from the team entirely. I’m not sure if the K League’s five-year ban was in place then or if it was a kind of backroom “don’t sign this kid” thing that kept him from going to a Korean club.

    • Social darwinism is alive and well in South Korea. Im finding myself less and less surprised by stories like this. The Heather Cho incident was another recent reminder to me. Senior-junior never been better.

      Of course if this player was extremely talented, this conversation probably would be more focused on what he did at PSV.

      • Situations like Kim Min-woo are one of the big problems for/with the K League. The class of player that’s not quite good enough for the big leagues in Europe, but good enough to lift and bring some flair to the domestic scene. Players like Kim MW, Nam TH, and such. They’re all plying their trade in leagues that are roughly the level of the K League, but for various reasons aren’t. The really good talents will go to Europe, that’s unavoidable, but they need to do better to keep the above-average talents at home.

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