[INTERVIEW]Chung: soccer team has oversized need for large defendersBERLIN, Germany ― While crowds gathered around the square in front of Brandenburg Gate here on Sunday in the German capital to cheer the homecoming of their team, Chung Mong-joon, chairman of the Korea Football Association and vice president of FIFA, was having breakfast in a nearby hotel. He talked with the JoongAng Ilbo about the World Cup and the future of Korea’s national soccer squad.
Q. What are your thoughts on this year’s World Cup?
A. It proved once again that the World Cup is the grandest show on Earth. Germany did a wonderful job as a host. Because the tournament was held in Europe, and most players had a break of about five weeks from playing in their leagues in Europe, European teams did well as expected.
There has been criticism from some quarters that teams have been too defensive-oriented.
From a fan’s perspective, I can understand why there would be some discontent. But starting with the second round, you either win or go home, so I can see how some coaches get more cautious and conservative. Still, this year’s World Cup drew more fans than the previous one.
The second goal by Swiss forward Alexander Frei against Korea remains controversial among Korean fans, who argue the play should have been called offside.
Never in the past have we filed any sort of appeal to FIFA after big tournaments, such as the World Cup. If we are unhappy about the officiating, I think it’s better to go through the Asian Football Confederation or directly contact FIFA, rather than express our dissatisfaction publicly. We wouldn’t be asking FIFA to fight with us, but to have conversations so that we can listen to different interpretations.
Do you think the Frei goal was offside?
At this juncture, I can’t say whether it was so or not. However, the referee [Horacio Elizondo] really interrupted the overall flow of the game, and that worked against us. Having said that, I think it’s nonsense to request a rematch. I am sure people who have called for one probably just intended to tell FIFA how unhappy they were about the call.
With a series of questions on bad officiating, some voices are calling for video replays and the introduction of “smart balls,” which contain a chip to send a radio signal to the referee’s watch when the ball crosses the goal line.
The video replay is currently under review, after the French Football Association suggested the idea two years ago. As long as it doesn’t affect the flow of the game too much, and it doesn’t erode the authority of the referees, I think the video review is a solid idea.
As far as smart balls are concerned, unless the quality of the balls is damaged, I see no reason not to introduce them.
How would you rate the performance of the Korean team, after it picked up four points in the group stage and still didn’t make it to the second round?
I don’t want to be talking about my own team, so I will borrow words from the president of the Japan Football Association, Shunichiro Okano. He said the Korean team has 4 S’s that are superior to the Japanese: speed, stamina, skill and spirit.
Against France, [forward] Cho Jae-jin put a lot of pressure on defenders in the second half, and I could tell the French players had their backs against the wall.
We were unlucky against Switzerland: the header by Philippe Senderos was a once-in-a-generation type of goal.
But the team still couldn’t get out of the group stage.
That’s on us, the association. The players did their job.
Some have argued that coach Dick Advocaat favored Lee Ho and Kim Dong-jin over others because he would take them to Russia [to coach them with Zenit St. Petersburg].
I can’t see how something like that would even qualify as news. Of course, when Guus Hiddink took Park Ji-sung and Lee Young-pyo with him [to the Dutch league’s PSV Eindhoven after the 2002 tournament], some people said the coach favored those two.
Well, if some players didn’t get much playing time, tough. But it’d be a stretch to say a lack of playing time for some players affected the team’s unity.
How would you compare coach Advocaat to Hiddink?
Both are great coaches who had proven track records in Europe. But I think Advocaat listens more to his assistants. He had Ahn Jung-hwan in mind as the team’s starting striker, but after gathering opinions from his staff, Advocaat started Cho Jae-jin in all three games. It’s never easy for someone in that position to listen to the advice of subordinates.
Hiddink will coach the Russian national team, and Advocaat is with Russia’s Zenit St. Petersburg.
This is a good opportunity to improve relations between Korea and Russia, and we will try to organize some friendly matches. If Advocaat’s team comes to Moscow for a game, I’d be willing to travel up there.
Korean soccer fans are much more passionate about World Cups than their professional league. What are your thoughts on the trend?
The opening match of the 2004 Asian Cup in Beijing didn’t draw too many fans. So I asked an official from the organizing committee why that was the case, and he told me people who are used to watching European Champions League games on TV would be bored out of their mind watching Asian Cup matches.
Now, if we only try to push people toward domestic league games, it will backfire and keep even more fans away. The World Cup is a different animal, and the pro league must develop a separate, unique identity.
Why do you think the sport of soccer has difficulty growing in Korea?
Because Korea is strong in many other sports. How many nations can you name that consistently win 10 gold medals in the Olympics? Baseball is still big, a lot of kids learn taekwondo, and the Koreans are dominating the LPGA Tour.
Hiddink once said Korea should develop big and tall defenders, but young athletes that are tall and quick are more likely to choose basketball and volleyball over soccer. The soccer association should lead the efforts to nurture big defensive backs.
Your term as the president of the Korea Football Association expires in two years.
I was named the fourth president last year, and I feel that I have been around for too long. It’s also not an easy job doubling as FIFA’s vice president.
My predecessors were all great citizens, and I hope that whoever succeeds me can put faith in Koreans, can help unite the people and isn’t swayed by politics.
What if a former soccer player, someone like Franz Beckenbauer [a German player who became president of the German World Cup Organizing Committee], becomes the next president of the Korean association?
As long as it’s someone that people can point to and say, “This person represents Korean soccer,” I will be OK with that. It’s inappropriate for me to name one, but if it happens to be a former player, then I hope it’s someone that people can say delighted many fans during his career.
Do you have any events on the schedule that involve North Korea?
I believe sports can only do so much to ease the tension between the two Koreas, and it will be difficult to solve the political and ideological differences. Having said that, I am pushing for joint practice sessions with North Korea when South Korea, China and Japan get together to train before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
What does the future hold for you as a FIFA vice president and as a politician?
I don’t have anything special on the plate. As a re-elected member of the National Assembly [as an independent lawmaker], my philosophy is to make sure to bring happiness to our citizens and promote the positive image of our nation.
I find it especially rewarding that I can bring people happiness through World Cups, and I can contribute to the good image of Korea as a FIFA vice president.
Mr. Chung later said the World Cup has had an impact on him beyond soccer matches.
“I developed an interest in different parts of the world thanks to World Cup; otherwise, I wouldn’t have known where Togo is located,” he said. “I believe soccer has the ability to unite people around the globe.”
by Jeong Young-jae