The first thing I must say is that in order to understand the basis of Korean football you have to know something of the social and historical context of the country, the history of football there and the area around it. South Korea, where I am working, has over the last few decades has improved its standard of living. Its economic prosperity has moved the country to 13th in world rankings according to figures presented in the World Bank list of 2007. After it split from its ‘sister’ North Korea in 1945, without a peace treaty being signed and in view of the radical change of government there, it became a democratic country (1987) and is today one of the most politically free and socially aware Asian countries. And to say this about a country in this part of the world is not to be taken lightly.
So how has all this affected the football? This openness at every level has fostered players who are disciplined, extremely hard-working, brave and who want to play in the best European leagues. We can cite loads of examples but a few will do – Park Ji Sung, playing at Manchester United, Lee Cheng-Yong at Bolton Wanderers, Park Chu-Young of Arsenal or Ji Dong-Wong at Sunderland… And that’s only players in the Premier League.
Obviously, there have been a lot of changes in the format of their own league and competitions. Today, a total of 16 teams make up the K-League (the professional Korean league) and in the next few years a Second Division will supplement the competition with promotion and relegation, leaving behind the current system (and will be similar to the NBA in North America).
Actually, the K-League is considered one of the best football leagues in Asia. It is probably just second to the J-League in Japan. The sponsorship backing by big companies (eg Hyundai, Samsung, Posco etc), the influx of foreign players (mainly Brazilians), the stadiums inherited from the World Cup in 2002, the price of the tickets (less than the price of a coffee), the gifts given out at games (balls, pennants…) and the raffles for cars at matches are some of the outward signs of football in Korea today.
However, they still have to improve. In a country where baseball is a direct competitor and is very strong along with football, and where the yankee sport receives more coverage than our beloved football, they have to keep fighting strongly and above all keep raising the level of the game.
How can they raise the level of the league?
To make the league better I believe they have to put in place the following initiatives: bring in foreign coaches with different methodologies, adapt their organisation and operation of the bigger clubs, align the season with European leagues, increase the number of foreign players allowed per team (at the moment they allow a maximum of 3 non-asian players per squad), arrange courses and educational conferences for those in the game (coaches, referees, agents, technical directors..) These are some of the proposals that in my opinion should be implemented.
Teams and styles of play
The K-League has a style of football in direct relation to its players and coaches and the schools they represent. So we see matches that are very physical, with lots of challenges and enthusiasm where strength dominates. These are the characteristics you see and excite every week in Korea.
With the exception of obvious differences, to put it simply, Korean football has more in common with English football than Spanish. But English football in its basic original form. Not the football of excellent foreign coaches (like Rafa at Liverpool or Arsene Wenger at Arsenal) who know how to blend the elements of English football with more touch football, more technical and tactical…On the other hand, if we look at the style of football in neighbouring Japan, you can see a more Spanish style. Better technique and more tactical organisation.
Obviously each team in the K-League is different from the others. And so are their styles of play. It is not uncommon to see a defensive approach, with five at the back and one striker. Or in classic systems of two lines of four and two strikers. Or as in the case of our own Chunnam Dragons where we work, with a defensive line and a holding midfield player operating behind the second line of four players and one up front. A system of 1-4-3-3 but with withdrawn wide players if you like.
Another thing about teams in the K-League is the influx of foreign players and the trademarks they bring. They usually have that little extra necessary to compete for the top places and are steeped in the style of football they come from. However, as the game goes on and fatigue starts to appear, the teams usually fold and generally, the more offensive players have more of an influence. For example, the South Americans, mainly Brazilian, usually have this extra quality required in a demanding competition. But at the same time, they usually work less in defence. Of course this can be improved and substitutions become a key factor to try to control events in the match.
I don’t think I can finish this article about my experience of Korean football without a special mention of one of the most important teams in the league, the Chunnam Dragons. My personal working relationship with the club means I can make a true assessment of the squad, team and their shape.
Except for a few matches towards the end of the season, the starting line-up was 1-4-3-3 in the majority of games. It is a young team, willing and competitive, the Korean character as I have said before, but includes the experienced veteran goalkeeper Woon Jae (few goalkeepers have been selected for their national team for 4 World Cups). The two Brazilian players, Indio and Weslley, plus a Colombian midfielder, Javier Reina, and the Australian centre back, Robert ‘Corny’ with the others make up a good unit. Footballers like Seung Hee, a defensive midfielder and Hyung Seung, the opposite, an attacking midfielder complete the base of the starting line-up. The former has an enviable long pass and at the same time who closes down space behind the other two midfielders. One of these two, the aforementioned HS is on loan from Seoul FC and is one of the most talented in the team. OK, maybe he’s a bit small but he has great mobility, a good final pass and plays football simply. We should also point out 3 players who in August, took part in the U20 World Cup in Colombia. They were the centre midfield player Kim Young Wook (strong, young with character..), the striker Lee Jong Ho (pure energy and strength) and defender Hwang Do Yeon (good in the air and uses the ball well).
If we limit ourselves to the stats, the team has taken a step forward compared to last season. This time we have amassed 39 points, 7 more than the whole of last year. And if this wasn’t enough the statistic is even more positive if we look at goals conceded. Only 20 up to now, making us the team with the best defensive record by a long way followed by Jeonbuk Hyundai’s 27 goals and Pohang Steelers who are first and second in the league at the time of writing.
On a less positive note, the problem scoring goals. Without doubt the departure of Ji Don Wong, the main striker of the national team, to Sunderland (Premier League) has not helped in this crucial area.
And what should we look forward to. The improvement of the Asian leagues with Japan, Korea and an emerging China, plus the successes of some players at the highest level, and the competition of European teams looking for players to enhance their leagues, paints a really positive picture. Let’s hope so.
Football Coach at Chunnam Dragons