From World Cup sizzle to European fizzleFollowing the unexpected and astounding success of the Korean national team in the World Cup tournament, there was plenty of hype about Korean players joining the big leagues in Europe. So far it has been more talk than action. Only three of the team's members, Cha Doo-ri, Lee Eul-yong and Song Chong-gug, have signed with European clubs -- in Germany, Turkey and the Netherlands, respectively.
And while every Korean soccer player dreams of being drafted by a major European team and winning fame, popularity and megabucks, the drafts so far haven't met the players' expectations. Instead of the $6 million or so that Ronaldo makes each year with Inter Milan, Korean players who do go abroad are offered around $500,000 annually.
What happened? Considering that half of Korea's World Cup team was being touted as big league material after the semifinals, what has tempered Europe's and the players' enthusiasm?
One oft-noted factor working against the players' success in Europe is that Asian players are generally perceived to lack the talent of European and South American players. "Most European clubs look down on [Korean] players," says Joo Yong-wha, director of Ivan Sports, a Daegu-based sports management agency. This, in spite of the Korean team's fourth-place finish in the World Cup.
European clubs also regard players as economic commodities. If a player, whether Asian or African, can bring fans and recognition to the home stadium, then the clubs are happy to hire him. "That's why Nakata and Ahn Jung-hwan were first called to play in Italy," Mr. Joo says. "Perugia believed they had 'merchandise value' -- they could bring endorsements from Korean corporations to the clubs and lure fans to visit Italy. But that did not happen." So unless a player is a truly gifted player who can help the club win, his value is limited.
Korean sports agents have failed to cut the deals necessary for international transfers. "You cannot find professional agents in Korea -- at least, not like the ones you see in the movie 'Jerry Maguire'," says Han Joon, senior manager at International Management Group, Korea.
Professional clubs in Korea concur. "Some agents act as personal secretaries, and some are exclusively involved in player transfer negotiations. But in my opinion, most of them are amateurs or frauds," says Cho Jae-hyeong, the Busan Icons public relations manager.
A prime example of ineptitude is the breakdown of negotiations for Ulsan Hyundai's Lee Chun-soo to join Southampton, an English Premier League club. Lee, a striker, was represented by Cho Hyeon-joon of ISE, a Seoul-based agency. But Mr. Cho was not a professional sports agent, according to the Ulsan club, and had no legal responsibility nor liability to Mr. Lee or to Ulsan if things went sour. "Sports agents here simply lack the knowledge base, language and negotiation skills, compared to their counterparts in Europe," says Song Dong-jin, planning manager of the Ulsan club, who was in charge of the transfer deal process. Professional sports agents are licensed by FIFA, and must pass a FIFA exam. Currently, only 16 sports agents in Korea are FIFA-licensed, but many more unqualified, nonlicensed people call themselves sports agents.
Korean clubs simply do not know how to market their players or, very often, do not want to release them because they are valuable commodities. "When European clubs become interested in Korean players, their aim is to train them in second or third leagues, and then, when their value goes up, transfer them to other teams for a higher price," says Sohn Jang-hwan, a JoongAng Ilbo sports writer. "Korean clubs, on the other hand, have only one thing in mind, which is to use players for promotional purposes." The teams have no incentive to let their players go, since the loss of star players only diminishes the public's enthusiasm for the K-League. Hence, the clubs seek high transfer fees ?far more than the players are actually worth.
Clubs, however, disagree. Choi Man-hee, Deputy general manager of Busan Icons, says, "We do what we can to send our men abroad."
THE SAGA CONTINUES
No doubt the transfer of the three Korean players to the European teams signals the beginning of international recognition and prestige for Korean soccer stars. That may provide an impetus for a further exodus. But Japanese and Chinese soccer players have achieved more success than Koreans in entering European leagues, despite their not-so-stellar performance during the World Cup tournament. Without qualified sports agents, and until domestic clubs overcome their reluctance to release their "cover boys," Korean soccer stars' dreams of making it big abroad will go unfulfilled.
Lee Eul-yong, 27, Bucheon SK
The first among the World Cup national squad to make it in Europe, Lee signed with Turkey's First Division club Trabzonspor on July 26. After five years in the pros in Korea, this midfielder with a gift for spectacular passes is also the first Korean player to enter Turkey's soccer league. Trabzonspor's coach was said to have recruited Lee after seeing his stunning free-kick goal against Turkey during the playoff for third and fourth places at the World Cup. Lee is under a one-year contract, and is being paid $500,000, with a transfer fee of $1.6 million to his domestic club.
Song Chong-gug, 23, Busan Icons
Dubbed the "Crown Prince of Hiddink's Squad," Song is one of two Korean athletes who played every minute of all seven World Cup matches this year. Known for his physical strength and polished defensive skills, Song signed on Aug. 12 with the Netherlands' Premier League club Feyenoord for a $400,000 annual salary and a transfer fee of $4 million to his Korean club. Song is considered one of the most versatile "multiplayers," a midfielder skilled at switching from offense to defense.
Cha Doo-ri, 22, Korea University
The son of the soccer legend Cha Bum-kun, this offensive player has followed in his father's footsteps and signed with the prestigious Bundesliga club, Bayer Leverkusen, on Aug. 8. During the first two years of his five-year contract in Germany, Cha will be on loan to Arminia Bielefeld, a lower-ranking club that will be the training ground before his entry into Leverkusen. Even though Cha is an amateur player at Korea University, his father's name and link (Cha senior played for Leverkusen from 1983 to 1989) enabled him to gain an annual salary of nearly $600,000.
Lee Chun-soo, 21, Ulsan Hyundai
The youngest and one of the most outspoken players on the national team, Lee was the first person to be seriously courted by an English Premier League club, Southhampton, following the World Cup. Lee was initially offered a four-year contract paying $520,000 a year, with a transfer fee of $1 million to Ulsan. However, Southhampton broke off talks on July 24, after nearly two weeks of negotiations. Southampton said it wanted to test Lee before recruiting him, but his club wanted a direct transfer along with a higher offer. Lee has vowed to focus on the K-League for now, but he says he will pursue his entry into the big leagues next year.
Yoo Sang-chul, 31, Kashiwa Reysol
One of the senior members of the national team, Yoo has expressed his desire to join the European leagues as soon as possible because at his age his career doesn't have many years left. He has played for J-league teams since 1999, and his contract expired in July. Yoo scored the final goal of his J-league career in his last match for Kashiwa on July 24, but has not had much luck getting offers from European recruiters. Yoo will most likely become an "unregistered" player, without any club affiliation, for the rest of the year, as European clubs prepare for the opening of their seasons next week.
Ahn Jung-hwan, 26, AC Perugia
Ahn became a national hero after scoring a brilliant golden goal against Italy in the quarterfinals. But his fortunes changed when the chairman of his pro team, Italy's Perugia, disparaged his ability and swore that Ahn "should never set foot on Perugia's territory." Ahn vowed not to return to Perugia, but now the club has refused to give up its rights to him. The debate over his status has led to an ugly wrangle involving two countries and FIFA. The club has refused to pay Ahn's salary and he has refused to come to preseason training. Until the matter is resolved, Ahn is an "orphan."
by Choi Jie-ho