Stielike: Foot -> Mouth (or was it?)

Uli Stielike
Screenshot courtesy of Joonang Daily

Former South Korea national team boss Uli Stielike gave an interview to German football website Sportbuzzer regarding the appointment of Jurgen Klinsmann as the new national team boss. It garnered some attention in Korea due to a rather bizarre comment Stielike made. Korea’s attacking prowess is stunted because of… the Korean war?

The controversial quote

Okay, so the quote that went around the internet was, “There is no peace agreement between North and South Korea, so the country is on constant alert … This caution is of course reflected in the character of the people, including in football. They defend quite well because they have the discipline, will, coordination and toughness required. On the offensive, however, there is a lack of creativity and risk-taking.” (quote from Joongang Daily article). So, yeah, the quote was stupid, to be quite frank. And it is fully deserving of the derision it is being met with.

Other mini-controversies

Stielike also said that the K League is not popular with most people and that the system is flawed (too much reliance on schools and universities for development. In the Joongang article, they state that his comments were “met with a fair amount of bemusement in Seoul” and that his analysis is “at best outdated”. But, is there more to that interview and Stielike’s comments then meets the eye?

The full interview

It is worth checking out the full interview on Sportbuzzer (even if, like I did, you just run it through Google Translate or whatnot). Stielike has made some snide remarks about Korean football since his unhappy divorce with the KFA, but in the article he is largely positive about his time in Seoul and with the team. He describes his time as “consistently positive” and “cooperation with the players and closest employees in the team.” He also describe the team as “very willing, ambitious and extremely disciplined group of players.”

And to be honest, most of the interview was… pretty decent to be honest. There isn’t a whole lot that is particularly inflammatory or wild. He says he has not talked to Klinsmann recently. That Korea wants to be a leading footballing nation in Asia. That the team is good, but there are challenges that face it. That Klinsmann should live in Seoul full-time and get to know the country, culture, and people.

Addressing the controversies

So yeah, like I said, that the team’s offensive issues are due to the ‘uneasiness’ that exists daily because of North Korea is… just wrong. Maybe as a foreigner living there, he may have felt that way, but I’m fairly confident in saying that doesn’t exist for the overwhelming majority of Koreans. Who knows? Maybe somebody told him that when he was in Korea? Regardless…

The lack of popularity overall? Well, it is true. Football certainly remains an distant second to baseball in terms of overall popularity – especially when it comes to the domestic leagues. Sure, the K League had a great opening weekend in terms of attendance, but will that hold over the course of the season? Probably not if the past is any indication. It is also true that most people do not ‘live’ football (and particularly K League) like they do in Europe.

The lack of a route

To be honest, this issue is why I actually wrote this post. Stielike’s comments are kind of whatever. But, I did want to talk about the continuing lack of route for young players in the K League. Now, it has gotten better. You do see more young players debuting in the K League these days. But, quite frankly it’s not enough. However, it’s also difficult at the same time.

Stielike referenced the chaebols – namely Hyundai (Jeonbuk, Ulsan, Busan) and Samsung (Suwon) – but you could also definitely throw in POSCO (Pohang, Jeonnam) as well as ones that have significantly cut their spending on K League clubs. It’s not a good thing for the league, but at the same time… can you blame them? As a fan (c’mon Busan, let’s finally get out of K League 2 this season), it’s always hard to watch it happen. But, take a step back, and it’s hard to really fault them. The clubs are (likely since they don’t share financial reports) money holes. Since the clubs don’t own the stadiums it’s hard to earn any significant money through matchday revenue and sponsorships are largely non-existent (since the chaebol clubs use the teams are marketing for their own products).

As such, you’d think the clubs would really embrace youth and playing players from the farm (who would be on low wages). Yet… that culture doesn’t really exist. As such, the clubs can find themselves in a difficult spot trying to balance the fans desire to win and the budget. Just a gut reaction, but I imagine it’s why we still see a lot of nobody Brazilians year-in, year-out. It looks like the clubs are signing and trying to do well. Anyway…

Back on topic

Oh right, the lack of a route. So, if you’re a young player what’re your options? The traditional route is of course, the school route (as referenced by Stielike in his interview). Play on the K League team’s youth team (which are almost always associated with an elementary, middle, or high school). Then for most, you get scouted by a university where you go and play in the U League, before going back to your club team as a pro. The problem is of course that the U League is not a very high standard and that when players go back to their club and get acclimated to things, they are usually 22 years old or so. Often they still have their military service to do as well (another issue that has been much discussed). If you’re a European club looking for a potential diamond in the rough, a 22 year old that may have to return to do 2+ years of military service isn’t that attractive an option.

What if you’re really good? Good enough to skip the ol’ U League and go straight pro? Well, if you’re lucky you follow the best path. You start playing a bit for the club at 18, gain some attention from Europe, and get a chance to make your move overseas where you can make that step to take it to the next level (that was a great commercial for those that remember it). But unfortunately, most of the time that’s not the case. You get to the club, sit on the bench for a season (or two), and then maybe start to get some minutes when you’re 20-21. But, again we see a situation like the first scenario (U League). Nowadays if you’re actually a really good/promising player, you should be a regular by 20-21. That would give you a chance to show off at U23 World Cup or the Olympics (or with the senior team), and still have a chance to get to a smaller European team, do well, and then move to a (potentially) big 5 league when you’re hitting your peak years.

But, again, that’s not what happens most of the time. So, if you’re a 16-17 year old who’s considering the their future options, what choice do you have? U League? Go pro and hope you get your chance? Go to Japan? All have their pros and cons. But, the truth remains that (again while it’s gotten better) the path from youth to pro is not a particularly smooth route – even for very promising youngsters.

Is there a solution?

To be honest I’m not sure. You’d think K League 2 clubs would be more open to playing youth given there isn’t a drop currently. Yet, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Maybe once the pyramid does get connected more between the top two levels and the rest, we’ll see more younger players making a smoother progression. Younger players at 16-18 years old will debut in the 3rd or 4th leagues and be able to move to 1/2 around 18-19 with more experience under their belt. More connections give more reason for larger clubs to loan out players to lower clubs? I’m not sure to be honest, but maybe? Hopefully?

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


  1. A diverse set of countries find success at the u17 and u20 world cups, Korea included. We generally do really well at these. Yet when it comes to the senior NT only a few countries do well. You need footballing infrastructure to develop these young players. We don’t have that. Unfortunately Japan is starting to get there…

  2. Not a Stielke fan, but… the quote is so bizarre I have to wonder if something was lost in translation? Could it be related to the military service requirement? I mean that requirement is historically related to the Korean War in a way. And it actually is a GIGANTIC hindrance to the development of the sport in Korea.

    When I read that his quote about Kleague popularity was met with bemusement, I did a double take. He’s completely accurate. Even diehard Kleague fans have to admit that the stadiums are usually less than halfway full. Nobody cares about the sport until the World Cup roles around. What is this “bemusement” exactly?

Join in the Tavern's conversations -Leave a comment...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.