All fight on the Western front for Euro exports
With the European football season now under way, a new generation of Korean players are hoping to make their mark on the Continent, while veterans such as Manchester United’s Park Ji-sung keep setting the benchmark higher with their tireless performances and versatile positional play.
Park has become a role model since he joined United in 2005, and not only for Korean and Asian players. He has won over fans across the board since pairing up successfully with striker Wayne Rooney, feeding the aggressive striker balls and finding the back of the net himself on key occasions, earning the nickname “three-lung Park” for his indefatigable displays.
Manager Sir Alex Ferguson demonstrated his respect for the player - who famously grew up eating frog soup as a boy in a bid to elevate his diminutive stature - by signing the 30-year-old for another two years.
But from Park, who is spending his seventh season in the English Premier League, to rookie attacker Ji Dong-won, at rival outfit Sunderland, each Korean player in Europe will have a different personal goal this season.
For 20-year-old Ji, who has already made history as the eighth and youngest Korean to play in the EPL, this will no doubt involve proving his mettle in what is considered the toughest and most physical league in the world.
The former Chunnam Dragons player signed a three-year deal with the Black Cats last month and made his debut a fortnight ago against Liverpool at Anfield. But he still needs time to adjust to the league’s battle-hardened defenders and merciless pace.
And while some players have made a dream start to the season, others have experienced nightmarish beginnings. Ki Sung-yueng slots into the first camp after he bagged two goals for Celtic in the Scottish Premier League.
However fortune failed to smile on Bolton Wanderers winger Lee Chung-yong, also in the EPL, who is out of action for nine months after he picked up a double fracture on his right leg courtesy of an ugly tackle during a preseason friendly against Newport County.
Pundits say Korea’s European exports need luck, stamina but most of all versatility to survive in their adoptive homes, and they shouldn’t carry unrealistic striking expectations.
“I think it’s too much for our strikers to score 15 or 20 goals in the season right now,” said Hahn June-hea, a football analyst for broadcaster KBS. “But attackers like Ji Dong-won are more versatile in where they can play, which I think is the key to success.”
In this respect, Park is a case in point. He has proven himself on both wings, in midfield and at the tip of the spear. He was also one of United’s most consistent performers last season, as they claimed a record 19th league title and reached the Champions League final, where they lost 3-1 to Barcelona at Wembley Stadium, northern London.
Jang Jee-hyun, a football commentator for SBS, cites Koreans’ speed and work rate for their success in Europe.
“It is hard to pick one reason why some make it and others fail, but in terms of position, midfielders are more likely to survive there [because of their work rate],” he said.
Park - who also played for Dutch outfit PSV Eindhoven under former Korea coach Guus Hiddink - is the third Korean to stay longer than a decade in Europe. He shares the honor with Seol Ki-hyeon, who spent six seasons in England and became the first Korean to score in the UEFA Champions League, and Cha Bum-kun - another name known and revered by most of his countrymen.
Cha, affectionately known as “Cha Boom” for his explosive performances in the 1980s, got the ball rolling for Korea’s exports as the first to play in Europe when he signed with German club SV Darmstadt 98 in 1978.
He won two UEFA Cup trophies with Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer 04 Leverkusen during his 11 years in Germany. He also managed a whopping 98 goals in 306 matches to set the best goal-scoring record for a non-German player in the Bundesliga until it was smashed in 1999. That year, he was voted Asia’s Player of the Century by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS).
Although not a natural-born goal-poacher, Cha become known for his powerful runs into the penalty box from the wing and his thunderbolt shots on-target.
Building on this legacy was nothing short of daunting for younger Korean players, including his own son, Cha Du-ri, who went to Europe as an attacker but now plays as a right back for Celtic.
In fact, less than 10 of the 100 who have tried to follow in Bum-kun’s boot-prints - including players on loan and in youth teams - have succeeded on the Continent.
There are various reasons for the high failure rate, with injuries and unfavorable positions high on the list.
According to Han, players need some help from Lady Luck in terms of where they are assigned. “Even though the player may have talent, being put in the right position is crucial,” he said.
He predicted that 23-year-old midfielder Koo Ja-cheol, who plies his trade for Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga, would struggle to let his talent shine as he has been set up as an attacking, rather than central, midfielder. Coincidentally, the 23-year-old recently picked up an ankle injury during training that ruled him out of action for up to one month.
Hahn said strikers need to be versatile and make a habit of rotating around the pitch to help the team out if they want to keep their jobs in Europe, with this one being the hardest to hang on to.
Striker Kim Joo-sung failed to stick in Germany despite being named Asian Player of the Year three times. Ditto for Hwang Sun-hong, the second-highest scorer for the Korean national team with 50 goals.
Meanwhile, in the late 1990s, Ahn Jung-hwan tried his luck at Perugia, FC Metz and MSV Duisburg, but never came close to replicating his success at the 2002 World Cup, which Korea co-hosted with Japan.
Lee Dong-gook, who had a brief spell with German club Werder Bremen in 2000, also had a fairly uneventful season with Middlesbrough from 2006 to 2007, making just 23 appearances in England and scoring no goals.
But Korean players’ stock has risen in the past few years and expectations have risen accordingly.
National team captain Park Chu-young, for example, can play in attacking midfield, on both flanks and as a lone striker. He netted 12 goals last season for French club Monaco and is expected to set another two-digit tally this season.
The 26-year-old’s main problem right now is battling boredom in France’s second division after the club was relegated. He has had no luck so far persuading a new team to sign him in light of the fact that 18 months of compulsory military service are looming in a couple of years. This seems to have caused snubs from formerly interested parties Liverpool and Schalke 04.
On a more promising note, Son Heung-min, who plays for German club Hamburg, may be the hottest Korean player to watch this year. He joined the team’s youth academy at 16 and is contracted until 2014.
The 19-year-old bagged 18 goals in 10 preseason matches and rifled in another against Hertha Berlin two weeks ago with a powerful 30-meter strike, adding to his three from last season.
“This is the season that Son will start to show his full attacking ability,” said SBS commentator Park Moon-sung, reflecting on the player’s repositioning from winger to a central striking role. “He will keep growing,” he added.
Other Koreans in Europe include Jung Jo-gook of Auxerre, Nam Tae-hee of Valenciennes - both in France’s Ligue 1 - and Suk Hyun-jun of FC Groningen, in Holland’s top-flight Eredivisie.
According to former Korea coach Huh Jung-moo, these and other players need not only technique and mental resilience, but also self-confidence and the ability to acclimatize culturally in order to make it.
“You have to win against yourself,” said Huh. “When you’re in a foreign country, everything looks new, but you have to adjust yourself both on and off the pitch.”
The 56-year-old, who now coaches K-League outfit Incheon United, was among the first generation of Koreans to head overseas when he played for PSV Eindhoven from 1980-83.
He became famous at home for challenging Diego Maradona at the 1986 FIFA World Cup, when he flew at the Argentine with a cynically high tackle. Older Koreans still refer to Huh as “Jindogae,” after the Jindo breed of dog that is native to his home, and which is known for its smart and competitive nature.
“Back in the old days, we didn’t have such a good footballing system in Korea like we have now,” he mused. “The situation has greatly improved to help players prepare for going abroad, but, for some, their biggest enemies are still themselves.”
In fact, football has developed dramatically from the 1980s, when the first pack of Koreans left. Now players can download limitless information on clubs and players, whereas before there were lots of black holes and question marks.
“Nowadays they are always thoroughly prepared,” said Hahn. “They have plenty of opportunities to study their rivals before the league starts.”
With younger players infiltrating youth leagues across the Continent, the future should see ripe pickings for Korea - which also spells good news for its national side, now suffering a giant headache in the absence of recently retired Park.
Bright lights include 14-year-old Baek Seung-ho, who joined the youth side of Spanish giants Barcelona 16 months ago, and 16-year-old Kim Byung-yeon, who has signed with St. Pauli’s youth team in Hamburg.
Making their mark on the world’s toughest grounds and winning over the world’s most demanding fans won’t be an easy task for any of Korea’s young guns, but beleaguered industry pundits have one more piece of advice to help them on their way: try not to get injured.
By Joo Kyung-don, Rob McGovern [email@example.com]