[Viewpoint]Lee’s yellow card

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[Viewpoint]Lee’s yellow card

They ran relentlessly for 120 minutes, including overtime, without showing any sign of exhaustion, winning a victory that seemed nearly impossible.

The Russian football team secured its first-ever European Championship semifinal appearance by beating the Netherlands in the Euro 2008 quarterfinal in Basel, Switzerland, on Sunday. Standing at the team bench was a man familiar to Koreans, Guus Hiddink, pumping his fists in his signature style.

Watching the team’s amazing performance was like seeing the Korean national team on its legendary march to the semifinals of the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup. Hiddink, who has now led the Korean, Australian and Russian national teams to unprecedented victories, showed off his almost magical leadership skills once again.

On the same day on another continent, the Korean national team played against North Korea at the World Cup Stadium in Sangam-dong, Seoul. It was part of the Asian regional qualifiers for the 2010 South Africa World Cup.

As both teams had already secured their places in the next round, the outcome of the game wasn’t so significant. However, the South Korean team looked exhausted throughout the entire match, eventually drawing with the North.

In fact, the Korean national team, which played against relatively weak teams until its match against North Korea, failed to convincingly show any good playing form. It was a continuation of the poor performances that have beleaguered the South Korean team since its breakout as a world football power in 2002.

It seems that the magic of Hiddink was lost as soon as he left Korea.

The administration under President Lee Myung-bak landed in a crisis only three months into its five-year term. In football terms, that’s less than five minutes into a 90-minute game. Dissenting voices were heard even before the game began.

When Lee chose players for his team, criticism ran rampant that they were unqualified and incompetent. As a result, some were reshuffled before they even got a chance to play a game. The manager of the team appealed to the people to trust him, claiming he had selected the most competent team available.

However, as soon as the whistle blew and the game started, it became apparent that there were problems in the selection of players. There were some who did not know the basics of the game. Others ignored the game plan and went off dribbling the ball on their own. Many were too busy watching their manager, and lost possession of the ball.

Then the manager ordered the players to unleash the special tactics they had been secretly trained in. But key players in the game plan hesitated and lost the ball.

The crowd was unimpressed, booing and hissing at the team’s shameful performance.

Despite this apparent failure, however, the manager insisted on continuing to use the same tactic. In the end, the crowd started throwing water bottles onto the pitch in disgust. Some even threw stones.

The manager, hiding on the bench, abruptly changed his tack, deciding to follow the crowd’s advice and ordering a change in strategy.

After only five minutes of playing time, he had changed his entire defense, including the team captain. Yet the crowd continued to boo. This time, the manager promised that he would replace some of the forwards, too.

The stadium was in a state of total chaos as the people, divided between those who claimed the changes were sufficient and others who were still unsatisfied, struggled with each other.

Although it was not a particularly inspiring performance, the Korean national football team finished their 90-minute game on Sunday. However, the team led by Lee Myung-bak still has four years and eight months of its term left. In its current circumstances, it desperately needs to borrow some of Hiddink’s magic.

The thing is, Hiddink’s magic formula for success is actually not much of a secret at all, nor is it impossible to achieve.

The first thing Hiddink does when he is in charge of a team is choose the most competent players. He knows that success depends on who gets picked for the team. Hiddink’s keen eye for talented individuals with great potential no doubt played a large role in finding the right players each time he took over a new team.

But one thing that should not be ignored is that he does not hail from the countries whose teams he coaches. Since he is free from the complicated web of personal connections in each national team he manages, he could objectively select players purely on the basis of their skills.

Another advantage is that he has his own solid football philosophy. His personal approach includes ideas such as good stamina is fundamental for a player; teamwork is of the utmost importance; and a good offense is the best defense. On top of that, the fact that he is a master of communication who can read the minds of his players and control their psychological state, has enabled him to work like a magician on football teams.

The magic of Hiddink’s leadership is so simple, in fact, that it could be referred to as common sense. His talent lies in knowing how to properly execute common sense.

The Lee Myung-bak team is at a crossroads. What kind of magic can Lee pull out of his hat to overcome this crisis?

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jong-soo

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