During its preparations for the now-iconic 2002 World Cup tournament which South Korea co-hosted with Japan, the Korea Football Association (KFA) hired Guus Hiddink at national coach.
One of the Dutchman’s first edicts was to stop the practice of players sitting together at team meals in groups based on seniority. Under the system Hiddink inherited, older players and younger players had sat in separate groups, and barely interacted with one another.
Perhaps Hiddink was onto something, since the Taeguk Warriors reached the semi-finals stage – Korea’s best-ever performance at a World Cup – helped, in great part, by a seemingly peerless team spirit.
But during Korea’s preparation for the 2018 World Cup, things may have gone a little too far in the other direction. Observers contend that cracks are beginning to show.
The European factor
One factor could well be that an increasing number of Korean players are spending time in the relatively egalitarian atmosphere of European club football. When these stars return home to perform national team duties alongside colleagues who play club football in Asia, they bring with them different approaches to interactions with authority figures, team-mates, fans and the media.
Lee Seung-woo understands this culture clash. Now 20, striker Lee is heading to the 2018 World Cup despite only gaining his first national cap in May. Since joining Spanish giants Barcelona at the age of 12 then moving to Hellas Verona in Italy in August 2017, Lee has never played professional football in his homeland. And it shows.
His first game back in the Land of the Morning Calm came in an under-17 tournament in 2015. He raised eyebrows by kicking an advertising hoarding after missing a scoring chance and on being substituted, made clear his annoyance, unusual in a country where players traditionally bow to team-mates and fans upon being withdrawn. “I had problems with my touch and there were many things that I personally regret,” Lee said afterwards.
Yet Lee did not seem overly perturbed by the resulting flood of criticism from ex-players, media and fans. “In Korea, I’ve been told I lack maturity and physicality,” he said. “But Barcelona just promoted me to their professional team. Over there, they see me differently. So I thank them.”
As players spend more time in European teams where there is more freedom for individuals to express themselves, it is perhaps natural that their behavior changes.
National team captain Ki Sung-yueng has notched up over a hundred appearances for his country but even he has been condemned as brash by Korean standards. After living in Australia for two years as a teenager, Ki has spent almost a decade in Europe. It may not be a coincidence that the midfielder is the most outspoken high-profile Korean player.
After a recent 0-0 draw with Bolivia marked another disappointing performance from the national team, Ki came out with a heartfelt message for supporters. It was not the sort of statement Korean football fans were used to hearing.
“During qualifying, I made a promise to our fans that we would be better,” Ki said. “I feel like I’ve turned out to be a liar, so it’s been difficult. I’m going to put everything on the line. If things go wrong at the World Cup, I’ll take responsibility.”
Friction on the field
During the Bolivia game there was friction between the team’s star player Son Heung-min and midfielder Jung Woo-yung. Son appeared to berate Jung after a free-kick was wasted, and Jung bristled visibly. Defender Kim Young-gown had to hold them apart.
In Korean football, this is not something to be taken lightly. There was more. After the game, Son’s advice for strike partner Hwang Hee-chan was in danger of crossing over into criticism.
“I’m not in a position to say what other players should do, but I hope he (Hwang) can play with composure,” Son said after the match. “He tried to make passes after one touch, but it didn’t go smoothly. I hope he can hold the ball and play with confidence.”
Son, now 25, moved to Europe almost a decade ago and has never played professional football in his homeland. All of this could be a consequence of general frustration at indifferent performances in the build-up to a big tournament, but those players who spend significant spells in Europe do appear more willing to speak their minds and ask questions than their domestic-based counterparts.
Guus Hiddink would surely approve. But will it undermine team spirit on the field? We shall see.