We miss you, Hiddink
The author is head of the sports news team at the JoongAng Ilbo.
A football is round. It does not lean left or right. It rewards whoever fights hard for it. A football embodies fairness and justice. Last week, Korean fans went wild over the news that football star Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur scored four goals during a single game in the English Premier League (EPL)— two of which were shot by his right foot and two by his left. As fans from all over the country cheered, it reminded me of how football has no left or right, liberal or conservative leanings.
Son’s astonishing play took me back to the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup, when football fever was at its peak. Under the leadership of Head Coach Guus Hiddink, the Korean national football team made an unprecedented run to the semifinals, bringing joy and honor to Koreans all over the country. Regardless of their age and gender, all became one. On days when a game was scheduled, endless floods of people wearing red T-shirts would fill Seoul Plaza near City Hall and wave the Taegukki, Korea’s national flag, while shouting “Daehanminguk!” — “Republic of Korea!”
Hiddink played a big role in igniting Korea’s football fever. He was a risk taker who often played psychological warfare tricks on star players, attacking them with scathing remarks at critical moments. He excluded players stuck in a rut and instead chose players who had good physical strength and the potential to perform well on the team — even if they had not made a name for themselves in the K League. It’s well known that even Lee Dong-gook was left off the team, though he was widely known as Korea’s best striker. Hiddink went hard on Ahn Jung-hwan, excoriating him for being more of a celebrity than an athlete. It was Hiddink who discovered talent in Park Ji-sung and marvelously trained him into the star player he later became.
Hiddink had a friendly, next-door-neighbor kind of look, but on the field, he was tougher than anyone. He once said, “I will not blame players if they fail to score, but I will blame them if they don’t even try to score because they’re afraid they might miss.”
Hiddink was not praised from the very beginning. During friendly matches held before the opening of the World Cup, the Korean national team did so poorly that fans and local media criticized the Dutch coach for “ weak stewardship.” Hiddink assured everyone the team would perform better in June.
That summer, Hiddink kept his word. The entire nation roared with excitement as Korea went on a winning streak. His jubilant uppercut goal celebrations became iconic. After each victory, tens of thousands of Koreans would flood the streets near Seoul City Hall and Gangnam Station, bursting with joy, throwing arms around each other’s shoulders and cheering. Football brought the nation together as one like never before. And how could I possibly forget the moment when Korea advanced to the 16th round? As players and fans were in overwhelming tears, Hiddink determinedly said, “I’m still hungry.”
Simply imagining Korea’s legendary advancement to the fourth round still gives me chills. The reason I’m recalling the 2002 World Cup 18 years later is that I feel it is in stark contrast to our nation today. Squares and plazas that used to be filled with excitement and joy are now overflowing with frustration and rage. People are always fighting each other on every issue, and their patience toward one another is growing thinner and thinner as the Covid-19 pandemic drags on.
And the politicians are even worse. Rather than trying to pull the nation together, they use provocative language to keep people apart. Hiddink’s keen leadership and humor are desperately needed like never before. If politics were soccer, what would Hiddink say about Korea’s current situation? In 2002, the football coach once told fans, “People may call it a ‘difficult problem,’ but I call it a ‘challenge.’ We will surprise the world.”
Chuseok is just around the corner. The holidays will look different from the past, as many people will stay home due to fears of virus infection. Is there anyone in Korea who can comfort our wounded souls? A ruling Democratic Party (DP) lawmaker recently made local news headlines for threatening to summon Kakao operators to his office for “unfair news arrangement” on its main page. Why not call Hiddink instead?