Former FC Seoul skipper settles into Chinese Super League
“I can feel the heat on my skin,” said Choi about football in China when Ilgan Sports, an affiliate of Korea JoongAng Daily, sat down with him.
The world is watching Chinese football right now as it invests hand over fist in its football program, aiming to make the country a world power in the sport by 2050. The surge in investment is reeling in star managers and players from around the globe. Sven-Goran Eriksson, former English national team manager, and Felix Magath, who oversaw Bayern Munich and Fulham in the past, are just a few of the easily recognizable names found in the Chinese Super League. The competition is fierce and Choi says the pressure has changed his outlook on the game.
“The fever here for football is something I have not seen before,” he says. “The stadium and the fans, it’s all huge. The average home crowd for Jiangsu is about 35,000 per game. The infrastructure is well established and the management system of the club is well organized. They essentially have laid out the ground work for further growth. It is an indisputable fact that Chinese football is developing at an unprecedented pace.”
The 43-year-old skipper added, “But this means more competition in the league. I feel more pressure here than I did in the K-League.”
The fruit of this labor has been sweeter than expected. Right now, Jiangsu, which finished ninth in the league last year, is vying for the top spot with Guangzhou Evergrande FC, a team coached by the renowned Brazilian boss Luiz Felipe Scolari. Scolari led Brazil’s national team to claim the 2002 Fifa World Cup title. Jiangsu has also advanced to the final of the Chinese FA Cup. Right now, just shortly after he stepped into the Chinese league, Choi has the opportunity for a double crown, and accordingly, his leadership is gaining attention in China.
But instead of taking the spotlight for himself, Choi credits his club and players for this success. “The driver behind our success is our sponsor, Suning Group, and the players from outside China,” Choi said. “I mean, I am seeing support and capital unfathomable in the K-League.”
As Choi can vouch, Suning Group does not shy away from putting down money when it comes to football. Not only does it sponsor Jiangsu Suning, but recently the company garnered global attention when Suning Holdings Group bought a majority stake in the elite Italian club Inter Milan in June.
And with what seems like almost unlimited support by the sponsor, Jiangsu Suning has managed to reel in some big names who are currently playing under Choi’s watch. Alex Teixeira of Brazil joined the club on a four-year contract for a transfer fee of 50 million euros ($56 million), a record in Asia before Givanildo Vieira de Sousa, more popularly known as “Hulk,” joined Shanghai Sipg for 55.8 million euros.
In addition to Teixeira, Ramires Santos do Nascimento, known as Ramires, also plays for Choi. He joined Jiangsu over the last winter transfer window with a transfer fee of 25 million euros, a record before Teixeira came along.
“I can see why they are considered some of the best in the world,” Choi explained, adding, “They are just good football players. The club does get its money’s worth. I never imagined myself coaching such players.”
Before Choi moved on, some people close to him worried these players might not be easy to deal with and that they would not respect him, but Choi says this is not the case. “They follow my instructions and they do not look down on me because I am an Asian manager. We have mutual respect for each other and I don’t try to assert my authority over them. We often joke around a lot and they ask me questions when needed. I was impressed by their character. They don’t know who I am but I think most of my Chinese players do.”
When asked about what compelled him to bring in Hong Jeong-ho, a Korean defender, Choi said he was in desperate need of bolstering his defense. “It was a good move,” added Choi. “We started to go on a winning streak around the time Hong came aboard. Our defense is now solid. He’s got a lot of good things to offer. It’s no wonder he is a regular starter in Korea’s national team.” Indeed, Hong joined Suning in July and Choi has gone without a loss from then until last Sunday, when it fell to Hangzhou Greentown 0-3.
But more so than this season, Choi looks forward to the next. “This is not the end,” Choi said, showing a hint of determination as he spoke. “It’s an endless challenge. Preparation and practice makes perfect and I cannot wait for next year. I hope to look through everything that went wrong this year and will make improvements during the off-season. We have some flaws to overcome and I will address them after the season.”
Choi said his goal is to put Jiangsu on the map of Asian football and show what the team is made of in next year’s Asian Champions League (ACL). “Chinese teams lost this year in the quarters and they need to look at themselves and figure out why.”
When asked about his former club, FC Seoul, Choi said he did not want to meet them in next year’s ACL but added that when push comes to shove, he will not dodge the challenge. Still, he couldn’t hide his love for his former team. “I learned everything I know right now from Seoul. Seoul will always have that special place in my heart.”
BY CHOI YONG-JAE [firstname.lastname@example.org]