Success overseas for Korean soccer begins at homeFor a month we watched the World Cup, rooting for the home team when not for our favorite players. It is the most-watched single sporting event in the world.
Yet sometimes the cheering is hollow, because if you are from Asia or any continent other than Europe or South America, it’s likely that beyond the quarterfinals, you have watched someone else’s party.
The 2002 World Cup may have been a mutation. The quarterfinalists included South Korea, Senegal, Turkey and the United States, along with Germany, Spain, England and Brazil. Somehow the tournament had a truly global look.
Now, four years later, none of the four Asian countries and only one African nation made it through the group stage, with Ghana falling in the first knockout stage.
The quarterfinalists in this year’s World Cup were all traditional soccer powerhouses. Brazil, Germany, Portugal, Italy, England, Argentina and France made the list, with Ukraine the only exception. Those countries share 15 championships among them.
It all comes down to the quality of domestic leagues that serve as the backbone of these powerhouses. The Italian, Spanish, German and English leagues are where the cream of the soccer world gathers, while the talent in South American leagues is not as good. Asia, in particular, cannot compete with these big leagues. Players who do possess some talent all try to jump to these leagues, leaving the leagues here without big stars.
To have a couple of players playing in Europe’s best leagues is not a bad idea. Nevertheless, a strong domestic league is needed to field a solid national team on a consistent basis and to fill the gaps when some players leave it.
One example that comes to mind is the Mexican soccer league. The league has been the breeding ground for national teams that have had fair success, qualifying 12 times for the World Cup and making it twice to the quarterfinals.
Much of the success of the league can be attributed to the legions of true soccer fans who show up for the domestic games as well as the national matches.
The media here have praised the hundreds of thousands of red-clad fans, going as far to say that they have set an example to the world of how cheering is done. I don’t dispute that. In a collective way, the Red Devils and the cheering culture that has taken root here since 2002 is something unique.
However, it’s no secret that the domestic K-League is not benefiting from this one-sided fan support. A large fan base gives the league more financial freedom to develop grassroots systems and the league itself for grooming talent. It’s the only way for South Korea to become a respectable soccer nation.
It will be a long time before South Korea can field a team where every member has the talent to play abroad, but combined with a solid team base from the domestic league and a couple of star players playing abroad, the country can be successful at the same time.
Otherwise, South Korea will remain at the frontier of the soccer world and will never repeat its 2002 performance. Not in a millennium.
by Brian Lee