Celebrating Tavern Year 4 : Zen and the Art of Korean Football (update v.1)

Today is our birthday as the Tavern celebrates 4 years revolving around the sun. The Tavern, both physical and cyber-metaphorical, stands tall despite some uncertainty about the future of Korean football.  Then again, when isn’t Korean football not in existential crisis mode?  Apart from all of that, on whether Son will have to return to Korea to abandon his footballing career and ambassadorial role in Europe to serve out his military conscription sentence or not within 3 to 4 years time, I’m here to raise a glass of proverbial soju with you all, wherever you are around the globe. It’s been my pleasure as the Old Tavern Owner to share this moment in time with all of you, all the writers both past and present at the Tavern, all the reader/Tavern goers – both new and those of you who’s been on this journey since the beginning, 건배 / gunbae / cheers!  Stay with me after the jump, got a bit of zen to dispense, a bit of news and another area to tackle in order improve the quality of Korean football.

I’ve done the retrospective thing, where we’ve been, all the roller coaster of emotions and countless amazing moments in Korean football, all the lows and highs. It’s been done but as I want to look ahead – I can’t help but for a moment remember why the Tavern came into existence. It was right after the last Olympics in London, on a high wire with so much at stake, Korea defeated Japan to win it’s first football medal – and with it a magical exemption for the players. Freedom – to pursue football without limits. The incredible joy of Park Chu-Young’s thrilling goal to break the deadlock, and the eventual heartbreaking story of his declining European career – one that started so brightly – what it could have been had he not taken that fateful decision to flee his medical at Lille. And yet – his story is not over – the prodigal son is enjoying a third renaissance at FC Seoul -back where he started his highly unusual career.

This birthday year, I’ll leave you all with this notion that’s loosely based on the novel of whom I paraphrased the title from: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. This seminal 1974 novel quickly became a countercultural manual for deconstructing the nature and meaning of quality.  The idea of quality practically undefinable, yet it exists.  It’s a notion that can be translated to how we perceive and interpret progress with K footy.   There’s no right or wrong answer necessarily. Is it a formula of hard work + inherent talent +  calibrated increase in competition = world classness?  How do you factor injuries in the equation?  2014 saw Korea knocked out of their group and getting pelted by fools throwing yeots -never mind the full context lost when considering how many vital players were injured at the end of a long European season.  That same group of yeot throwers, are they actively supporting their own K-League club?  The light numbers at K League stadiums despite Asian Champions League dominance suggests the answer is a resounding no. The reaction to Son missing a few clear chances during the Honduras QF in the RIo Olympics was quite telling. How many netizens threw the towel in and dismissed Korea when the reality is they knocked out the Gold medalists in the group stage. They nearly beat Germany, this a country that not only won the World Cup, but has a truly enviable youth system. The reality also is this: world class footballers miss sitters. Sure you can argue it happens less for quality players, but nonetheless it happens. Armchair Yeot-eaters will lose sight of the fact that even the Messis, Neymars, Ronaldos, and Ibrahimovics of the world still can get in positions to win games and still miss. If you deconstruct an EPL game where a clear impact player is having a beast of a game, what isn’t altogether visible on the tele is all the mistakes that player is producing. Even as he’s on track to winning Man of the Match, he is still making mistakes throughout that game, which on average is anywhere from 30-50 errors ranging from minor and major – in positioning, in making the incorrect run, an inefficient cut, or wayward passes intercepted, etc.  There’s a clear difference however between impactful and those who aren’t, which generally can be summed up:

  • impact players (usually) don’t get too bent out of shape when there’s an self-error.
  • They are learning in real-time in order to adjust during the course of the match. Count how many times Messi dribbles in and run into walls and/or gets dispossessed. He’s not too concerned – it’s all reconnaissance, testing out possible weaknesses, until the master breaches and finds a way.
  • Finally, they exhibit confidence -they not just believe it, they know they have the talent, the skills in their toolboxes, and the vision to problem solve and find a way to get one in the back of the net.


…and in the back of their minds, they know even on their best days, they could still lose. It is a game after all, in which the unexpected happens.

The qualities of the impact player mentioned above are what Korean players undoubtedly are going for, but many fall short of, particularly in the first and third category.  Both Lee Seung-Woo and Ki Sung-Yeung comes to mind as players who sometimes receives guff from Koreans for their brash behavior. However, some of that is confidence showing itself- and moxie. Both have received a fair bit of development abroad and adopted that mindset. Dan Harris, on the coaching staff at Seoul E-Land remarked that the lack of confidence is something that has alarmed him about many of the young Koreans he works with. Some of that is cultural based. There’s no easy answers as to how to tweak the culture positively in this regard. And then there’s the paralysis of not wanting to make mistakes -to such an uber degree that it impairs them so that they play conservatively rather than experiment. To be ultra safe may mean not making age appropriate mistakes and the opportunity to learn properly from them. I may be overgeneralizing based on my own upbringing, but my admittedly imperfect observations growing up in a Korean family is that performance is both absolutist and fatalistic; it’s all or nothing with zero room for failure.  But there is another way to approach development.

I’m going on a limb here and argue that Korea can move toward a more creative development model and not just force what I call a Samsung approach to cell phone electronics – which is arguably a ‘copy-method’ that borrows and mimics the iphone (I may be ruffling feathers but I’m not necessarily anti-Samsung. However re: cellphone manufacturing, that’s what appears to have happened).  Wickedly creative players like Johan Cryuff didn’t just pop out of a test tube. Modern football requires, nay demands qualities that are as flexible as it is methodical; to which creative footballers have not just technical ability, but also a footballing intelligence that doesn’t remain in stasis -it keeps growing, keeps adapting, all in an effort to continually problem solve and find answers. And in the process, inevitably experience + experiments with other cultures, styles, tactics, techniques = a new synthesis. Possibly even, something new. *this part italicized was added on 8/31

I haven’t abandoned this idea of quality when talking about Korean football.  Sure the KNT/KFA and Taeguk Warrior supporters the world over want quality – but many would simply measure that in visible metrics in wins/draws/losses. That doesn’t tell the whole story, and as much as Korea stays fairly on top of the competition within Asia, when it gets tested outside of Asia, the lack of depth in the KNT becomes clear – reflective of the multiple systemic problems within Korean football that we’ve been addressing at the Tavern. But while (hopefully) those systemic problems will get addressed one day, I hope Korea digs even deeper in truly carving out an authentic footballing identity. We know what Spanish football is about. We know what German football is about.  Do we have a clear idea about Korean football/Hanguk Chugu is about?

Zen and the Art of Korean Football – may we reach a higher level of footballing consciousness to see it one day come to fruition. That is all.

Epilogue: I guess in celebrating the 4 years of the Tavern, I have to thank millions of times over all the writers/contributors who carried the Tavern during my extended hiatus (I’m still filming a family documentary about my apa’s side of the family and their escape from North Korea during the war).  I’m raising a glass to Tim Lee and Jinseok Yang in particular -their energy and passion to carry the Tavern farther and further is contagious. Also to Jae Chee and Nicole Chung, both have been incredible and awesome (Jae is really busy at the moment but he’s always with us in spirit). Jun’s just started contributing – both his posts have been stellar (and we’re always looking for more Tavern writers -who’ll be next to step up onto the pitch?). To the other contributors in our recent past, Steve Price, Takeuchi, Evelyn Kim, Derek, Jeremy Paek, thank you, thank you, thank you! You are always welcome here at the Tavern!  And to you readers, once again, we can’t have a Tavern without people, can we now?  To write about Korean footy, to participate and read about it, it’s allowed me, what with my limited hangukmal, to feel more connected to my Korean roots. There’s immense value in that personally.  To that end, another plug for our new FORUM -visit and participate!  Happy Birthday Tavern.

Extra time: Transfer news? Tottenham has rejected Wolfsburg’s offer of 30M for Son Heung-Min. Spurs want to hold onto Son, presumably as they need all hands on deck, including the speedy winger for a Champions League run and a respectable domestic title attempt.  To which I say: it’s a great challenge for Son to fight for his way to the first team and make impact. This is his chance to work out all the kinks, get back on the pitch and grow. Yolo.

In K-League news, it’s yet another systemic problem to address. Like the MLS, confoundingly, the top flight K-League Classic is still going through with a weekend of fixtures despite it being a FIFA international break. Korea has called up several K-League players (though I agree with many who say Stielike should have called up more including Jeonbuk’s Kim Bo-Kyung). Steven Goff from the Washington Post wrote a damning article on the MLS’s boneheaded decision to keep playing during the international break (you can read that here), many of the arguments you could apply directly to the K-League as well.  Get it together K-League – do what the rest of the football world does – take a break during the int’l break.


In other news, I’m sorry we’re reporting this so late but the WK-League All Star game happened August 21 – they squared off against FFC Frankfurt. The Eujahs drew in regulation time 1-1 against Frankfurt. They won in PKs eventually.  Despite the lack of attendance, it was an entertaining match. Take a look at Korea’s first goal (scrub to 30:00 min mark), here’s how it went down:

Park Eun-Sun freekick nearly went in, lovely skill work to keep possession and a brilliant volley by Park Hwi-Young to open the scoreline.


Super. WK-League resumed yesterday, here’s the results (thanks to soccerway.com):

Mon 29/08/16 Boeun Sangmu 0 – 3 Icheon Daekyo More info
Suwon FMC 0 – 1 Gumi Sportstoto More info
Incheon Red Angels 4 – 1 Hwacheon KSPO



It’s almost midnight at the Tavern, time for last call.  Bring on China this Thursday. Dae Han Min Guk ya’ll, Ddo bo ja!





About Roy Ghim 454 Articles
The old Tavern Owner


  1. thanks for continuing this site Roy.
    I used to know very little about Korean football until my interest was sparked up after the 2012 Olympics.
    Since then the rest is history.
    I don’t remember how I found this site tbh but luckily I ended up here in 2014.
    I’ve seen numerous posts that were informative and interesting.
    I’ve learned a lot about Korean football thanks to you guys.
    Thanks for sticking around for 4 years Roy. This site is truly appreciated.
    And oh yeah good luck with your documentary. I think I recall us having a brief conversation about this before.
    Thanks again Roy and to all the other writers. I applaud you all.

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