올라간 것은 반드시 내려와야 한다 – “What goes up must come down”
Hoisted to the peak of international prominence with a politically inflammatory approach to co-hosting the 2002 World Cup, the South Korean national football team removed some of the most blatant prejudices towards Asian football with their highly commendable performances. Much akin to their northern neighbours in this respect, given how a largely unfancied Kim Il-Sung-era side acquitted themselves to become the first non-European or American side to reach the knockout stages in 1966, the establishment on the overachieving peninsula bathed in somewhat of an uncharacteristic fame, and entered the peripheries of momentous global sporting influence. Yet, replicating the missteps of their contemporaries, their momentum stalled; the unforgiving necessity of competitive tournament football ushering in the ambitious regimes of rivals both local and distant, in geographical and cultural respects. A victim of the inevitability of time, but more to the expectations set by an unprecedented semi-final benchmark – a burden they shoulder for all Asian nations, given their unprecedented feat what now amounts to 16 years ago – the Taeguk Warriors now lead into a 2018 campaign, hosted poignantly across the Peninsula, facing a considerable uphill task against defending champions Germany, a Mexico outfit currently ranked by FIFA as 17th in the world and an aspirational Swedish squad both tactically liberated and egotistically incapacitated by the retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimović. While remaining relatively dominant in their East Asian sub-continental association, however, will their retained pragmatism, and respectable commercial growth, extend to a desire to challenge the global elite once again?
In the midst of the nation’s present accommodation of the Winter Olympic institution, their ability to helm the qualities of immensely popular competition is evident – albeit with an inevitably alternative approach to preceding, and more traditional, host cities of either the summer or winter tournament, more reliant on uniformity than natural flair. PyeongChang 2018’s presentation of the 17-day event, though running over budget like any major tournament, has exploited all of the commercial opportunities available in a professional and slick organisation. Economically, perhaps, this very factor has aligned with an acutely industrialised culture continuing to profit, alongside Chinese and Japanese counterparts, from the European and American stock market crash of 2007-08; filtering inevitably through to their representation through various sporting forms. Such an intrinsic relationship between the two societal subsects, which are portrayed – in an encapsulation of cultural conceit – as so far divided across, similarly, the European and North American continents, has guided Korean principles, particularly in the past decade. With Hyundai Development Company chairman Chung Mong-gyu the Korean Football Association’s (KFA) president and a member of the FIFA Council since 2013 and 2017 respectively, and the chairman of Busan IPark – without a trophy while under Hyundai ownership – since 2000, their ties to the nation’s second business dynasty are unavoidable, and only encapsulate the national team’s primacy as a societal structure.
Also currently listed as Vice President of the East Asian Football Federation, Asian Football Confederation and Korean Sport & Olympic Committee, following previous roles as Chef de Mission of South Korea’s modest Olympic performance in 2016 and K-League President, Mong-gyu has carved a reputation as the go-to man of Korean sport, and though presumably overburdened at times, he has instilled the values of his business career at each institution where his influence has laid. The control he has exerted over his nation’s most eminent global representatives, given the unrivalled viewing figures that continue to grow with each World Cup tournament, however, has enacted few of the developments some may expect at this stage of the formative nation’s heritage. Where professional football has only been hosted since 1983’s introduction of the K-League Classic, and independence from four decades of Imperial Japanese rule was only granted officially in 1948, and realistically – given the bitter losses of the Korean War – in 1953, the formal practice of football, commercially, if not culturally, superior to baseball, taekwondo and speed skating, is not prolonged, but certainly prolific.
개천에서 용 난다 – “From the steam a dragon rises” (From rags to riches)
The affection drawn to the sport is not a modern phenomenon, nonetheless. Derived from an ancient past in which children’s leisure time could be spent occupied by jegichagi, a keepie-uppie style sport in which players attempt to prevent the jegi from falling to the ground before the opponent, Korean football in its own right is recorded as expanding from the interaction with late Victorian era British colonialist officers, and being fostered to an extent under Japanese rule; the KFA first formed in 1928, though not recognised by FIFA until post-war independence. Regardless of national interest, no competitive international side could be formed until, much akin to the earlier trends of their Japanese neighbours, and now the Chinese establishment, the K-League was formed, and in the 1990s high-profile sponsorship and the import of European, South American and African talent were realised as highly lucrative trades.
Within this same capacity, however, the extremities of commercialisation have not been truly tested. No truly relevant international figure has been recruited to any outfit immersed in K-League competition (Niall McGinn, Dalian Atkinson and the token spattering of former Yugoslav and Brazilian also-rans not registering on my account), while for the KFA, their player development policy appears as decisive as a cartoon character stood over a earthquake-stricken land’s gaping precipice, with one foot planted on the land favouring K-League fulfilment, and the other directed towards the mastering of foreign lands. Such an indistinct approach is perfectly evident in their selection options ahead of Russia; only unfortunate injuries to Tottenham’s Heung Son-Min and Swansea’s Ki Sung-yueng away from the possibility of having just four representatives currently employed in a top-level European league available, while the aforementioned duo has won six of the previous seven KFA male Footballer of the Year awards.
The objective of the KFA system, and any national institution at that, must be to provide a coherent, but lenient, vision for all who are at its potential mercy. If so willing to offer congratulatory, and very relevant, prizes to these figureheads of overseas ambition in Heung and Ki, one would certainly presume their intention to encourage self-motivation and self-sustenance in European environs, and with the only other Footballer of the Year gong going to Kim Young-gwon after the centre-back’s Chinese Super League-AFC Champions League double with Guangzhou Evergrande in 2015, any non-Korean shelter. Yet the array of K-League representatives set not only to land in Russia this summer, but also to go toe-to-toe with the prestigious athletes of Germany, Sweden and Mexico in the actual conditions of a World Cup match, defy this rhetoric.
Granted, only two European-based entities were accredited with 2002 World Cup squad places – Seol Ki-hyeon, who only months earlier with Anderlecht had become the first Korean to score in the Champions League, and Perugia’s Ahn Jung-hwan – under Guus Hiddink, but two pivotal features defined that tournament; hosting aside. Firstly, it is notable that, alongside Croatia’s rue of defeat, in their first World Cup appearance, at such an advanced stage by the hosts at France ‘98, and Turkey’s fellow run to the semis in 2002, the Taeguk Warriors – who had not won a World Cup match in five earlier finals appearances, alongside just four wins, three of those in 1996 and 2002, in 17 earlier Olympic Games matches – represented a lesser international power who rose to sporting prominence; success owed more to the fervour of fans, nous of learned coaches and tactical alignment than the youth development programmes only available to senior socio-economic nations. Secondly, it is surely undisputed that without the very presence of enigmatic Dutchman Hiddink – complete with a pedigree that saw the Netherlands led to fourth place in 1998, and PSV Eindhoven hoisting aloft the European Cup a decade earlier – none of the combative, divisive achievement of the geographically minute nation would have been made possible.
Undoubtedly, in a modern climate where wealth disparities with elite domestic competitions in Europe and even China intensify, we have to respect the abilities that the K-League does continue to produce. In the past decade, a steady stream featuring former Monaco and Arsenal striker Park Chu-yong, ex-Sunderland and (albeit briefly) Borussia Dortmund forward Ji Dong-won, Bundesliga-based midfielder Koo Ja-cheol, Red Bull Salzburg midfield prodigy Hwang Hee-chan and Dijon’s in-form attacking midfielder Kwon Chang-hoon have deferred from the likes of Pohang Steelers, Jeju United and FC Seoul, asserting the position of South Korean academies in European prestige and widely bolstering the finances of these same establishments back on the Peninsula in the process. Reinvestment, as evident by the replication of these exports a decade apart, has been efficiently placed also, ensuring the sustainability of the model.
Of all nations to challenge the global elite with an export culture fundamental to their league system, only Portugal and Iceland truly stand out. The former, in the Primeira Liga, obviously possesses a vastly stronger national division in comparison to Korean affairs – yet the latter presents an intriguing status. As an isolated geographical outpost, their focus naturally had to be placed on overcoming the inclement environment and reinforce the original mid-to-late 1990s exports of Eiður Guðjohnsen and the likes. Generally, their stance, on the peripheries of both geographical and financial Europe replicates much of the issues that pose the South Korean system in Asia. Yet the long-affirmed continental (Asian Football Confederation, or AFC) club competition eminence of the Koreans does differ from the terrain that the Icelanders have so far proven powerless to overcome. Amongst UEFA’s inclines, of course, it is widely accepted that an Icelandic club stands little chance of fulfilling group stage Champions League aspirations. It is exactly this disparity, however, that inspired, and indeed continues to motivate, Knattspyrnusamband Íslands (KSI – or Football Association of Iceland) chiefs and councils in a system that similarly relied upon the patronage of high-ranking national business figures. As a resilient, isolated nation, their perseverance and quietly astute pursuit of a shared vision proved fruitful – not solely with the now-famed construction of a vast number of publicly owned, multi-purpose and vitally indoor “football houses”, but also with the subsidy of UEFA-grade coaching courses for citizens across the island – and has transformed the sporting, and more widely cultural, appearance of the state. Much akin to the revolutions imposed in New Zealand with rugby union and cricket, wherein the bi-island nation can impossibly defy its meagre population and land mass to produce world-leading quality, and the trends covered in the high-profile media of recent months at Italian outfit Atalanta, Iceland reversed an entire society’s perspective towards sport. South Korea, one would logically extrapolate, must achieve the same unlikely feat.
It is just that, however – unlikely. Especially given the socio-economic development of the Republic of Korea in comparison to the likes of Iceland or New Zealand; a duo whom the Koreans can boast to dwarf the combined population of by almost ten times. Technologically developed – and fixated, culturally – like few other nations on earth, extremely prosperous for the vast majority of citizens in its thriving employment and salary figures, politically advanced and culturally central to an intrinsically globalised modern spectrum, few reasons exist for a revolution of any kind, and even fewer to which the average Korean would be sympathetic. Theirs is not a society, or even societal subculture, liable to the ideological shapeshifting of states otherwise irrelevant on the global sporting stage. As is reliably proven, they can continue to qualify for events such as the World Cup, and profit in the top ten performing nations of either Olympics, without undue concern. Why, in that case, change tack?
Indeed, one would conclude either cynically or pragmatically, an alternative approach must be considered. The crux of the matter, I suppose, is an ultimatum that questions the parameters that the KFA employs in order to define success. Do they seriously intend on rivalling historically distinguished nations such as Germany, and overpowering the likes of Mexico and Sweden, on a regular basis? Given each socio-economic factor of the state, this could be a very genuine experience, after all. For a short while, in all of the hubbub of 2002, they may well have been overexposed to the very thrill. Nonetheless, now is the era in which they must break from the past and opt to assume stability over the adrenaline of arrogant, entitled eventing. These are only the words of a Westerner, himself entitled, though.
Perhaps the sacrificing of results is too great a burden for the Koreans to bear in order to breed future progression. Until recently, one could observe, the very same issue afflicted the entire godforsaken England system. Flexibility, in realisation from a long and anguished education from their German, Spanish and Italian overseers, was an attribute they dearly lacked as an association; amongst many others, I grant you that. Their round of 16 exit in 2010’s South African World Cup notwithstanding, of course, they have regressed from 2002, as the English have in major tournament results from the mid-2000s. Albeit in a vastly different cultural circumstance, whilst the Three Lions encountered a media prone to exploitative hyperbole given the club achievements of a number of players and scandals in the personal lives of both management and playing staff, the fate of the Taeguk Warriors has proven a victim to the ever-improving desire of their competitors, both near and far. The synchronicity of fortunes with their English counterparts is certainly no coincidence, either. A shared sporting disquiet is an apt ode to stagnation, in the British case from complacency and the Koreans’ chiefly due to slight administrative naivety, and the culpability of senior figures in what ultimately is cheaply targeted as the misstep of players and management in major tournament failure.
말을 냇가에 끌고 갈 수는 있어도 억지로 물을 먹일 수는 없다 – “You can lead a horse and go to a stream but you can’t make it drink by its own will” (You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink)
For all of the comparisons – some flattering, others patronising – with nations of varying recent acclaim, however, we can easily forgo the true reality of South Korean football, if not referred to in a commercially viable Anglicised style otherwise known locally as chuggu (축구). Equipped with admirable infrastructure across each of the climactically diverse provinces, they however lack much of the enthusiasm in which the KFA basked in the months following victories over the much-fancied Italians and Spaniards; average K-League 1 match attendances sitting at 6,505 in the 2017 season, while in the same period in the K-League 2 the total season attendance amounted to just 418,388, and the average per match just 2,324. Within this, the tale of two clubs, and one city, defines the extremity of public engagement; regular K-League 1 title challengers FC Seoul and four-year-old second division side Seoul E-Land FC by far the most popular and least attended sides in 2017, respectively, with 16,316 and 1,611 fans on average present at each home match. While these figures may be partly acceptable in the domestic division of a nation ranked 58th in the world by FIFA, these must be considered in the very image of the facilities bestowed upon them, given their status as clubs in South Korea’s capital, and one of Asia’s key cities; the Seoul World Cup Stadium and Olympic Stadium, of 66,704 and 69,950 capacities respectively, and as a result the nation’s largest sporting constructs. These are rendered desolate, understaffed and largely unprofitable venues when hosting weekly league football, entirely capturing the core fault of Korean football, and perhaps an irreversible circumstance.
Clubs, no matter their performance, will continue to survive off these paltry incomes thanks to the patronage of local government or internationally prominent business dynasties. This is the criticism that will persist throughout their participation in the sport until ruthless capitalism is fully embraced at top-level competition, and also burdens the efforts of many lesser European nations at this stage. Their reliance on half-hearted, philanthropic and. to an extent, forlorn is obtrusive to any attempts to make domestic competition truly competitive, rather than a mere showpiece for a tired commercial product that lacks the funds to revitalise. It is unlikely the introduction of clubs such as Seoul E-Land, an institution owned by the retail conglomerate E-Land – who derive their name and brand from the apparent Oriental fascination with English regalia and royalty – will resolve this alone, also. They may well contribute to a more sustainable and ambitious future perspective, nonetheless.
콩 심은 데 콩 나고 팥 심은 데 팥 난다 – “A bean grows where you plant a bean, and a red bean grows where you plant a red bean” (You reap what you sow)
It will take individuals and lesser groups to alter the face of Korean football, undoubtedly. Posed with the overwhelming environment a nation whose politics are not exactly the most lenient or embracing of such status quo-defying entrepreneurship, immense vision and bravery would have to define these few effective revolutionaries. They are not unprecedented in number, but few and far between at least, and not without their detractors; beware the ramifications of your actions, the public cries. Unless successful in the opportunity they do have, again they may be deterred for a decade, or longer, of stagnation to reaffirm status and only intensify national despondence. In such a hostile environment, their risk far outweighs the likelihood of reward, also. For conservatism to rule, however, no institution can be operating effectively, and for South Korean football to prosper, this reputation must be shed. Engaging again with the public upon which they, as any sporting institution, are so reliant, is a pressing necessity, and one that will not be eased by hoping repeatedly that results merely carve themselves out in an expired system. They have all the equipment required, both naturally and materially, but to truly harness it, further experience as a footballing nation will do them no harm at all. Once any naivety is eroded, and I have absolute faith that in coming years it will be, once again, the blossom of youth may rise again. No such sentiment could be displayed more aptly, inadvertently, than in the untidy translation of the nation’s very motto, after all; ‘benefit broadly in the human world’. We could all, indeed, share this hope.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!