[NOTEBOOK]The Dutchman and the presidentGuus Hiddink was the hero of Korea after he led the team to the semifinal round of last year’s soccer World Cup. But in his early days as Korea’s head coach, Mr. Hiddink had been under attack by the media here. Beginning with Team Korea’s disappointing performance in the Confederation Cup in May, 2001, until the end of training camp in Europe that September, Mr. Hiddink was an object of mockery by the media. Criticism continued the following year, from the Gold Cup tournament in January to training camp in South America in February. After being defeated by France and the Czech Republic by identical 5-0 scores, the media started to call him “Oh Dae-yeong,” a plausible-sounding Korean name that also means “five to nothing.” Disappointed soccer fans found satisfaction in the harsh criticism of Mr. Hiddink.
But the coach was little concerned about what people said about him. He remained silent and did his job. The only time he got upset about a media report was when a sports daily wrote that Choi Yong-soo, one of the star strikers, had not obeyed the coach’s orders. He was furious at the article and told the writer that the newspaper was a piece of trash. Mr. Hiddink said he would not tolerate any media coverage that damaged teamwork and tried to create insecurity and distrust. He was determined to protect the team from the manipulative media.
Apart from that, he was neither irritated nor furious about even most far-fetched reports, and was happy to meet with any reporter, even if the writer did not share his soccer “code.”
Most importantly, he said consistently that the ultimate goal of the team was the World Cup, and the rest was only a path to reach that goal. Regardless of the match results, he claimed, his team was improving both physically and strategically; he asked for the media’s understanding and cooperation. He would voluntarily hold news conferences from time to time to provide objective data and keep the reporters updated in detail on how the team had been training, what it had achieved and what was planned for the future.
Although reporters were sometimes not sure if Mr. Hiddink’s words were trustworthy, the players stepped forward to defend their head coach. When the criticism peaked after the disappointing results of the Gold Cup tournament, team members such as Song Chong-gook and Lee Young-pyo said with confidence that people did not understand Mr. Hiddink’s strategic planning and that the team was changing in the right direction.
Mr. Hiddink is a stubborn man, but at the same time he knows to back off when he receives a good piece of advice. At first, he wanted to use a 4-4-2 formation with four defenders in front of his goal. But when critics said the players would have a hard time getting used to the new strategy, he turned to a 3-5-2 formation with three defenders. He announced that he would create a team with young and bold players, but when the team was criticized as lacking a central force, he was happy to have Hong Myung-bo, the tried-and-true team captain, join the team even though he had not originally planned to use him.
As the World Cup approached, we could see how the team had changed. Even those who know nothing about soccer could tell that Team Korea was not the same unmotivated team that Mr. Hiddink had inherited, and the press coverage quickly turned laudatory. When the national team made a miraculous drive into the quarterfinals, the nation was paying homage to Mr. Hiddink.
Nothing had changed about Mr. Hiddink, but when he proved himself with results, public opinion started to change and then the media followed. If Team Korea had played poorly and not gone to the second round of the tournament, Mr. Hiddink would have been called a traitor, not a hero. He kept his promise, and the skeptical media surrendered.
Gathered at the City Hall plaza, thousands of Red Devil supporters started to pay back those who had attacked Mr. Hiddink. They distributed fans with a phrase ridiculing one news outlet that they thought had been especially malicious.
Recently, President Roh Moo-hyun twice stressed that he identified with Mr. Hiddink and explained what he thought were the similarities and differences. Then what about their relationship with the press? Does Mr. Roh think he and Mr. Hiddink reacted to the media similarly? Or does he think he is different from Mr. Hiddink in that respect?
In the end, Mr. Hiddink triumphed over the critical media. Mr. Roh and the press can certainly learn from how the head coach dealt with the media.
* The writer is sports news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Dong-kyun