Why No Defenders?

This article was requested by Tuco Salamanca. Who brought up the interesting point, that while Korea, and Asia at large (mainly Japan), have developed good forwards, plenty of quality midfielders, and some good fullbacks over the years, neither country has really ever produced a top centerback. For Korea, Hong Myeong-Bo has probably been the closest, but even the most die-hard Hong fans would have to admit that he falls well short of the likes of Cannavaro, Nesta, Maldini, Hierro, and his other contemporaries. So, the question is, why haven’t Korea and Japan (and other Asian countries) ever really produced a top central defender?

I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this question, nor do I have any real “evidence” to back up what I will propose in this article. These are mainly gut feelings, observations, and informed guesses on my part. So, please keep that in mind as you read.

What does it take to be a quality defender?

I think it would be best to start with, what makes a good defender? If you were building a defender what skills would they have? Physically they would be tall, strong, and quick. Mentally they would be very focused, alert, have quick reflexes, and be good readers of the game. Additional requirements would be they are strong in the air, good passers of the ball, have good positional sense, excellent communicators, and good timing in the tackle.

What It Takes to Develop a Defender

If you’re a young kid or teenager who dreams of playing professional football, what do you do? You play, of course. To get practice in the skills needed to be an attacker, all you really need is a ball. You can dribble everywhere and anywhere. You can pass and shoot to any spot. But to practice defense? You need at least one other person, but even then all you can practice is one-on-one defending. Vital skills like reading passing lanes, watching runs from deep, playing attackers offside, covering for each other, aren’t possible. The only way to get those skills is to play full games, and to play with the same group of people to develop chemistry.

Beyond that you need coaches who can help young players learn how to/develop the ability to anticipate. How to look at player movement and the spaces available to predict where attackers will move and where the ball may go. This skill is vital for defenders, and one that is incredibly difficult to develop.

Korea’s Focus

Here, I will re-iterate my disclaimer. This is speculation on my part. I have not witnessed a training session at a Korean club or national team level to ascertain whether my gut instinct feel is correct or not.

In Korea there is a high level focus on technical skill. Nowadays it is very common to see football games of some sort all around the country. Whether it’s a full game or a small side match or the very popular 족구 (foot-volleyball). While this is of course good for the country as a whole, it pushes players to focus on skills that are more commonly associated with midfielders and forwards. Dribbling, control, short passing, and finishing. Walking around the area where I live, I constantly see small sided games or foot volleyball games being played by middle and high school aged students. The result is a generation of players who will likely be very skilled technical players, but ones who lack some of the key aspects to be a top defender.

At most of these games there is little defense played, and little effort to really defend beyond some basic “get in the way” type stuff. Once I had a class canceled, so I stood by the window and watched the high school kids play football next door for their sports class. Again, the defending was simple with little instructions. The players seemed eager just to lump it up field when it came to them, and there was little instruction from the teachers watching. Granted this school was not associated with any club team, like some are, but it still shows a potential problem with the way young students and players are taught about defending.

Coaches

Here is an area where I feel that Asia falls short as a whole. There are few top level coaches, either at a positional level or head level, that are Asian. To me it says quite a bit that with Korea’s last two job openings there were few Korean names tipped to head it. The same could be said about Japan, who turned to a foreign coach (Alberto Zaccheroni) in the end. Defenders, as with all positions, require a top coach to help them develop the necessary skills to be successful. Right now, Korea has few to help players develop beyond an average level.

History

Korea is relatively new on the world stage. After squeaking into the World Cup, Korean papers and websites proudly proclaimed that Korea was part of an elite group as they had now qualified for the 8th World Cup in a row. That would bring us to the ’86 World Cup. Quite an achievement, but world football has been going on much longer than that. When looked at it from a generational perspective, Korea has maybe had 4-5 generations of players since then. Not a whole lot of time for a real world-class defender to emerge, especially when the first half of that time was a relatively poor period for Korean football (early 90’s).

Role Models

As far as defenders go, it’s unfortunate that Hong Myeong-Bo played most of his career in the 90’s. Had he played 10 years later, I think that Korea may see more quality defenders being produced. Kids today grow up idolizing Park Ji-Sung, Park Chu-Young, Lee Chung-Yong, Ki Sung-Yueng, and Koo Ja-Cheol. All are midfielders or forwards. The aura around defenders isn’t great in Korea. Compare that to say an Italy or Germany where the likes of Scirea, Maldini, Cannavaro, Baresi, and Beckenbauer are still revered to this day. Hong, who enjoys great popularity in Korea, doesn’t come close to this level of admiration from the general or sporting public. As such there isn’t much glamor around the positions. Few young players really want to play in defense, and most who do probably are there as they didn’t quite make the cut at another position.

One in the Future?

So, can Korea produce a top centerback in the future? The answer is, “of course”, but it will take a special situation. Looking at the current crop, it’s difficult for me to see any of Hong Jeong-Ho, Kim Young-Kwon, Jang Hyun-Soo, or Kim Ki-Hee really becoming top class. I think they could all be very good, but not likely to be signed by the biggest teams in club football. But, they are a step in the right direction. A good career, particularly with the senior team, could help shine some light on the position and encourage more young players to try and become centerbacks. Also, as cable and satellite TV and internet streaming becomes more accessible, more young players will be able to watch top defenders from other countries, the Silva’s, Chiellini’s, Varane’s, and Ramos’ of the world play and aspire to be like them.

I’m also hopeful that Korea’s coaching and youth development system will continue to grow and expand, and that young players will get a better footballing education here at home. As Korea’s image as a footballing nation grows, hopefully more young players will also have a chance to train and grow at some of the top youth academies around the world as well.

A top class defender will emerge from Asia, and I think it’s very possible they will be Korean. Hopefully it will happen soon.

About Jae Chee 312 Articles

A football fan with who got bit by the writing bug.

8 Comments

  1. Hey Jae, thanks for remembering good old Tuco in this article.

    Actually footvolley is an integral part of training in all of professional football in Europe and in South America.
    I’ve played with normal Korean people and I’ve played with people all over the world. Korean civilians are the worst ever. Soooo bad…

    I was thinking Korea should work on defense because they don’t have the skill to play against big teams. Korea should play against teams like Spain, the way, say, Getafe play against Barcelona. Put everything in the back and hope for the best on the counter or a lucky goal from a set piece. The way they played against France in 2006 WC.
    Korea played their best football ever under Advocaat, getting their first WC win outside of Korea in 2006 and probably their first draw against a big team outside of Korea. And that was a very defensive side that played well as a bloc with proper possession football unlike under Hiddink who played long balls and emphasized stamina.

    BTW I once said Hong MB was the best Asian defender ever but I realized he is number 2. Sun Ji Hai was a better defender and if this fact is painful, a bit of cream should be applied to sore area.

    After seeing the Korean under 20 these past days, I have lost hope in Korean football. That’s yet another time they reach the last 16 as third place, never depending on themselves.

    I just can’t get over how much Korea sucks at football. It doesn’t matter if you win a gazillion olympic medals, if your country can’t play football then it sucks at sports. No one really gives a toss about the olympics man. Only Americans, Jamaicans, Chinese and Koreans.

    I once talked with No In-Oh, midfielder for the Korean under 20 team that placed 4th in god knows when. He said that Korean youth football treats the game as a chore and not a game. Korean players don’t enjoy playing as much as Brazilians or Europeans. They make you run till you get blisters, sort of the way they make kids study all day long and turn them into miserable lost souls that end up commiting suicide.
    But then again it’s not all about enjoyment because disciplined people like the Germans play a beautiful game.

    My Spanish friend once told me Koreans should stick to making cars and technology cause footballs not really their thing.

    I don’t mean vent out my frustration with Korean football against you guys that do a great job, but Koreas just so bad man.. so bad.

    • Hmmm, where to start? I realize foot-volley isn’t a “Korean” thing, I was just referencing it as a football-related activity that you commonly see here. I can’t comment on the skills of Koreans at foot-volley, since I’ve never played it here (prefer regular footy), but my wife tells me it’s something I would do everyday if I had to go to the army.

      I think Korea needs to learn how to be tactically flexible. When to be defensive and compact and hit on the counter, and when they need to impose their will on games. The problem, as I see it, with Korea trying to be a defensive team is that we really don’t have the players to do it as most of our more defensive players are fairly inexperienced (Park Jong-Woo, Han Kook-Young). I actually suspect though, that the team will look more defensive under Hong Myeong-Bo.

      While there is plenty to pick on in terms of Korea’s development of youth talent and such, I would urge patience. Korea is not a country with a long and proud footballing past. While it existed in the early 20th century, it basically disappeared during the war (WWII) and didn’t really reappear as a professional sport until 1983 when the K League started. Even then it wasn’t hugely popular and the infrastructure to develop quality really didn’t come about until the build up to and post 2002 World Cup.

      It wouldn’t surprise me that Korean youth treat training and such as a chore. I can fully see what you describe as happening. I would say that it speaks to one of the points I made about a lack of quality coaches in Korea. Coaches who know how to develop youth and get them to reach their potential.

      Certainly there are many issues that would need addressing to turn Korea into a quality footballing. I believe it can happen. It may take awhile, and may be a painful experience on the way, but I think it can happen.

  2. First off, great article Jae.

    I think the problem goes to the traditional mindset of Korean football. If Korea were a European country, they would be Germany- man marking, quick counter-attacks, long/through balls into channels for the wingers/forwards to run to. That style works well when you have a physical advantage (which seems to be the case in Asia), but against Europeans who are just as big and strong, well, you have to have some other skills to compensate. And, for a long time, Korea didn’t have a player with that capability (Ko Jong-Soo was promising, but never panned out/injured often).

    That our best man-marker ever (imho) was Yoo Sang-Chul, a midfielder, says it all.

    @ Jae: The early 90s teams had good young players (Hong, Seo Jung-Won, Hwang Sun-Hong, Ha Seok-Ju, Noh Jung-Yoon…). And I just realized that none of them are defenders, so I guess I made your point. 🙂

    @ Tuco: Hong actually was a midfielder- it was Cha who put him at sweeper (iirc), in the mold of Beckenbauer, Sammer, etc. As for Sun Jihai, are you trolling us? 🙂 Seriously, Fan Zhiyi was a much, MUCH better defender than Sun- and he couldn’t hold a candle to Hong. Don’t forget, after the awful 98 World Cup, it was reported that Barcelona (Van Gaal?) who wanted to bring Hong (and Yoo) to Barca, but Hong had already agreed to join Bellmare Hiratsuka (J-League).

    (an aside- this has to be one of the weakest U-20 teams Korea has brought, but nowhere near as awful as the team that went to Malaysia in ’97.)

  3. Oh my…
    I hope you do better in your personal life than is apparent from your greatly discerning eye in football. I won’t waste time by replying to any of your comment.

    Goodbye champion

  4. @Tuca:

    No offense taken, mate- just one man’s opinions and recollections of seeing Korean football from the 90s. I suspect you are correct about the wait- I just hope it isn’t THAT long.

    cheers.

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