▲KFA’s president Chung Mong-kyu
The 2018 Russian World Cup united the whole world with soccer. The sight of fans from different nations cheering for their teams was heartwarming to all of us. In this sense, soccer is not only a competition in which winners rejoice and losers mourn, but also a sport that moves and thrills its fans. Preparations for the matches, the results, the players, little anecdotes before and after the matches, and the fans altogether createsa story, A recollection that they will never forget. World Cup is not only a sports competition but a festival of the whole world. But Korea’s World Cup was far from that. The online community trimmed with indiscriminate insult and mockery directed to one or two specific players, some having to delete SNS accounts “terrored” by agitated fans, who also threw eggs to the national team during its press interview on the date of return. The 2018 Russian World Cup was a mess: as to whom the most responsibility lies remains unclear.
The public’s rage is directed to The Korea Football Association (KFA). It is their view that the KFA’s irresponsible management of the national team’s preparation for the World Cup is the biggest contributor in This year’s World Cup failure. There had been suspicions about bribery and unfair player selections which include high KFA officials. These largely remain in the shadows, while coach appointment does not. The KFA again changed the national team’s coach only a year before the opening of the World Cup, causing a serious lack of time in training for the world cup. The fans’ rage is directed to the KFA in that it repeated the mistakes it committed in the last World Cup. Six years ago, the KFA signed Choi Kang-hee as the temporary coach of the national team, his contract expiring at the end of the preliminary matches in 2013. When his tenure ended, the KFA had no choice but to replace the coach with Hong Myung-bo, a legendary player and the 2012 London Olympics bronze medal-winning coach. But he proved to be at managing the team, and the team failed to reach the tournaments in the 2014 Brazil World Cup. The appointment of a national coach includes a long-term plan for the national team, since the coach requires a certain period to examine all the candidates and single out the best in the national team. Hong had only a year to carry these out, which was a serious shortage of time. This process repeated in 2017, when the KFA again fired Uli Stielike to replace him with Shin Tae-yong, the former head coach of the national team. Korea again failed to qualify to the tournaments. This time, the public is pointing to the KFA’s structural problem: the board is not motivated to win the world cup but are only trying to maintain their status. After the 2014 World Cup, the KFA pretended to launch a massive change in personnel, saying they are “responsible” for the failure, but key officials remained in the KFA. The public is criticizing their lack of self-reflection.
However, the problem does not lie in KFA’s high officials remaining in their seats for such a long time. It lies in the stagnant performance of the national team for more than a decade. Since the 2002 World Cup’s miraculous Triumph soccer has become a business in Korea. The KFA’s only standard was great results, and so was it to the coaches and players. The young players who just started soccer aimed to follow the “elite course” to the national team and was subject to intense competition from elementary school. For more than a decade, the youth team’s only goal was to win a competition and secure reputation, not to raise a mature and creative player. It is natural that a youth player has chances to play in numerous positions to acquire all the necessary traits of a professional athlete. But forcing them to acquire certain styles that will draw/lead the team be deprived of certain significant skills and simplify their playstyles. These youths grow up to play in professional stage, which explains why K-league remains so unpopular to sports fans. All twelve teams playing in similar styles limits the variety of a soccer match, making the matches “predictable.” Fans have to turn their eyes to foreign leagues which provide more exciting and unpredictable games, to satiate their needs of enjoying a sports game. “Compared to the past, marketing is getting better, but the level of performance is below standard, and that draws away the fans,” said an intern working at FC Seoul. The K-league’s popularity has reached its bottom state: two-thirds of the stadium remains empty even for the most popular teams like Seoul or Jeonbuk, and the situation is worse in other teams. Moreover, the leagues have to give out free tickets to receive spectators and the value of broadcasting rights is even now. It is becoming harder to have access to K-league matches day by day.
All these problems rise from the stagnant system of Korean youth soccer. Nobody being aware of the system’s problem, this has gone on for a long time and resulted in a miserable failure. To the young players, it is a pressure from theenvironment, the coaches, even their parents who wish their children to succeed, and that pressure is taken without question. Everybody in this field obeys the system’s authority. An eagerness, even an obsession to winning is crucial in World Cups. But is it the right answer to developing talented young players? Do the so called “World-Class” teams adopt such a method as we do?
The answer is NO. Each team adopts a different system, but they share one important common ground: they secure every opportunity to youth players, even if they do not manage to get to professional stage. Among many examples, let’s take Spain as a model of very intense but safe, organized system. Spain is famous for an enormous pool of players and carefully set league systems that provide plenty opportunities of every youth players in the nation. Spain’s youth league system is divided into 6 divisions according to age, and allows players aged 8 to 20 to play in this league. If we include amateur/semi-Pro leagues, that number soars up to thirty or more. Lastly, the Spain’s curriculum for coach license requires knowledge in diverse fields extending to Psychology, Anatomy, Biology, and Physical Training. Even a small, local youth team hires coaches who have expertise in almost every sports field. The well-organized system of Spain’s youth football does not pressure anyone to go up the ladder to acquire success. There are plenty of chances for everyone who wants to play soccer for their life, whether professional or non-professional.
Another great model is Iceland. Iceland is a tiny country with the population of/reaching 350,000. It even lacks a national soccer league. However, it reached quarterfinals in Euro 2016 and the tournament stage in the 2018 Russia World Cup. The Iceland national team attributes their success to the nation’s long-term investment in its youth system that is lasting for two decades. Underneath the trainers’ and players’ training motto lies “enjoyment.” The Iceland national team’s forward Jon Dadi Bodvarsson said during an interview with TIME that “That’s one of the best trainings as a kid, when you’re having fun with your mates.” 100 boys and girls gather in an Iceland’s local indoor training ground and receive qualified training from a professional licensed coach. Iceland uses its weakness in lacking a soccer league as its strength. Young athletes have chances to try out a variety of sports such as basketball and handball until they reach 14 or 15 and choose one to play afterwards. Through these experiences, young players learn athlete’s motor skills that aids in playing football as they grow up.
These two seemingly contradicting models suggest a same lesson for Korean soccer. Both nations do not eliminate competition in the youth soccer teams. They see it as a key to fostering winning mentality in young players. But they have systems and rules that support the teams to provide the players with various opportunities. They do not protect the players from failure, but they do protect them from giving up. In these nations, soccer is a “sports-for-all,” not a foothold to success, honor and respect. In both countries, only those who stand out well above others get into the professional level, but no player is deprived of the chance to play sports. The key is securing the opportunity.
The most impending task for Korean soccer is to innovate the youth system. In doing so it should be deeply rooted in everyone’s minds that soccer is a “sports” not a “business.” Taking soccer as a business to earn money and reputation, using it as a foothold to success and honor has resulted in depreciating/degrading our level way below the global standard. What was supposed to be a festival turned out to be a misery. Without delving into the structural pressure that is applying at every stage in Korean soccer, the KFA and the national team remains far from regaining the fans’ support. The next 4 years of Korean soccer may decide its fate.
By Yu Su-won, Int’l & Social Reporter