A new challenge for a defector coachNAMHAE, South Gyeongsang ― On a windy afternoon last Friday, Mun Ki-nam, 57, the head of the University of Ulsan’s soccer team, was intently watching a game from the bench.
It was the team’s first official outing since he became its coach a month ago, and it also marked Mr. Mun’s debut as a manager of a South Korean soccer team, although he once coached the North Korean national teams.
The University of Ulsan defeated LG Siltron 3-1 in the game played at a public stadium in Namhae, South Gyeongsang province.
“Although we had a victory, the game didn’t go as well as we had expected,” Mr. Mun said. “The players didn’t follow through on the training they had. They seemed nervous and didn’t play their best.”
Mr. Mun has the appearance of an average South Korean of his age, but he was not very talkative and rarely displayed the smile that was so evident in the photos taken at the FIFA World Youth Championship in Portugal in 1991.
That year, in a sign of rapprochement, North and South Korea sent a joint team to Portugal, and Mr. Mun shared coaching responsibilities with Choi Man-hee of South Korea, who is now coaching future league players for the Suwon Samsung Bluewings pro soccer club. The uniting of players from the two Koreas turned out to be a success, as the team made it to the quarterfinals.
Later, Mr. Mun led the North Korean women’s soccer team in the Asian qualifying rounds for the 1995 Women’s World Cup in Sweden. He also coached the North Korean national team for the 2000 Asian Cup tournament. Before taking on coaching jobs, Mr. Mun played on the North Korean national team from 1970 through 1979, participating in the 7th Asian Games in Tehran in 1974 and the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games.
Mr. Mun reportedly held a high-ranking position in the North Korean soccer federation, but defected in August 2003 through the South Korean Embassy in Beijing. He arrived in the South on Jan. 30, 2004, with his wife, two sons and two daughters.
It is not certain why he took the risk of defecting from the North despite his successful career there. According to his colleagues, Mr. Mun has remained silent about matters relating to the North and has been reluctant to talk about his reasons for coming to the South.
But he has not been so reticent about discussing his new career.
When he was named to head the University of Ulsan team on Feb. 11, he said at a press conference, “I feel pressure for taking on such a strong team for my first coaching job here.”
The team won the national college competition last year and also took home the trophy in the national sports competition for the second year in a row last year.
During his first month on the job, he mostly tried to learn about the players and the team, and made few changes in strategy.
“Working as a coach for only a month, I do not have a clear understanding of the players and the team,” Mr. Mun said, adding that it would take a while to figure out the details.
“The team has high standards in terms of techniques and strategies, though the players still need to develop their strength,” he added.
According to Kim Kwang-cheol, manager of the University of Ulsan’s sports-related affairs, the response by the players and staff to the new coach has been very positive.
“Mr. Mun’s coaching style seems rather democratic,” Mr. Kim said. “He respects the autonomy of the players and talks to them personally. He asks them to get training in skills they lack.”
Mr. Kim said Mr. Mun stressed speed in playing the game, as well as aggressive person-to-person coverage.
Explaining the differences he perceived between soccer styles in the two Koreas, Mr. Mun said, “South Korean teams are flexible in their strategy. Sometimes they move quickly and then change to a slower speed at will.”
As for the North Korean players, he said, “They pursue an aggressive, speedy offense by engaging in tackles.”
Asked how far he thinks North Korea could advance in the qualifying matches for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, or even the tournament itself, the coach said, “It has been one and a half years since I came here, and I don’t know much about North Korean soccer anymore.”
Recently, Japan beat North Korea 1-0 in a World Cup qualifying round match.
Of course, this is not the first time that Mr. Mun has been exposed to South Korean soccer. He watched South Korean players, including Cha Bum-kun, play an international match in Tehran, Iran. The coach said he was impressed with Mr. Cha’s play and befriended him. He learned more about South Korean soccer when he co-trained the joint team for the World Youth Championship in Portugal.
Mr. Lee said he has not experienced much difficulty in coaching the South Korean team because “that’s what I have been doing for my whole life.”
Reflecting on his career, Mr. Mun said the high point was when the North Korean women’s team beat China in the Asian qualifying rounds for the Women’s World Cup in Sweden and took second place in its group in 1994. The North Korean team, however, did not enter the tournament in Sweden, although it was eligible to do so.
With regard to his life in the South, he said, “I feel very satisfied. The university has shown great interest in me and provided a lot of support.”
Mr. Mun’s wife and four children live in Seoul, while he is staying in Ulsan. “My family is fine,” he added. “My children have their own careers and we receive a lot of help from the government.”
Mr. Mun said his aspiration is to further enhance the reputation of the University of Ulsan team. “I would like to help the team foster good players and do my best to contribute to the team,” he said.
by Limb Jae-un