Saturday, December 8, 2007

Korea Follow England's Bad Example

New coach Huh (left) flanked by Lee Yong-moo, head of the KFA's technical committee
It is a situation that is familiar to all English fans. The FA starts looking for a high-profile foreign coach for the national team, gets its fingers very publicly burnt, looks to home for a safe choice and then appoints a man with success in cup competitions but a mediocre league record.

Steve McClaren’s England didn’t qualify for the 2008 European Championships but will Huh Jung-moo's Korea make it to South Africa in 2010? For the sake of the Korean Football Association (KFA), it better.

It hasn’t been the best of weeks for the KFA. It started with the expectation that, by Friday, a high-profile foreign coach would be appointed. The first choice was former Liverpool, France and Lyon boss Gerard Houllier and the back-up was the English ex-Ireland manager Mick McCarthy. Instead, a man who took Chunnam Dragons to tenth place in the 2007 K-League is in the hotseat.

The story is a sorry one. For weeks, the authorities had remained tight-lipped about who was in line to take the job, admitting only that it would be one from overseas. Naturally, there were off-the-record confessions but nothing that couldn’t be denied if necessary. Last Wednesday however, two separate KFA officials, one the chief and FIFA Vice-President Chung Mong-joon, told reporters that the deal was almost done. Official spokesperson You Yong-cheol said that it was ’50-50’ between Houllier and McCarthy.

According to sources, the 50-50 referred to whether Houllier would say no. It was assumed that McCarthy was prepared to leave English championship club Wolverhampton Wanderers and head east.

The KFA’s comments were swiftly relayed westwards, made headlines and came as a shock to the English club which issued a statement that said a statement would be issued later. Whether or not McCarthy wanted the job, he was hardly likely to publicly say so when he knew Houllier had first refusal. After a day of meetings at Molineux, the former Irish boss emerged from talks armed with an improved contract and the old “thanks but no thanks,” speech. Shortly after, it was confirmed that Houllier had also said ‘non’.

It was not a good 24 hours for Korean football and it also contained news that Pim Verbeek, who resigned as coach of the Taeguk Warriors in July, had been appointed by Australia. It didn’t make anyone feel better.

Instead of taking stock of the sorry situation, the KFA immediately turned to Huh Jung-moo and he was officially unveiled on Friday afternoon. It all happened frighteningly quickly but perhaps after the stinging overseas rejections, it is understandable that swift solace was sought in the embrace of a familiar figure and old flame.

Huh has coached the national team before – taking over after the 1998 World Cup and stepping down in 2000. It was not a time that was seen as especially successful. On the back of a Korean striker who could actually score goals, Lee Dong-gook, the team finished in third at the 2000 Asian Cup– the same as 2007. Without this recall, the 52 year-old would have gone down in international history as the man before Hiddink.

As coach of K-League club Chunnam Dragons, it is only in the cups that the team has shone. League performances have been average at best. Last season the Gwangyang outfit finished in tenth, scoring just 24 goals in 26 games.

With that in mind, it is not surprising that, among fans at least, Huh’s appointment has been met with even less enthusiasm that Steve McClaren’s in England in 2006. The Englishman was known by the media as ‘second choice Steve’ during his reign as coach, though that nickname turned out to be the nicest he was to receive as England went crashing out of Euro qualification.

‘Third-choice Huh’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it but he has a second chance to show what he can do, starting against Turkmenistan on February 6. Fans will be hoping that the team performs better on the pitch than the football association does off it.

copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile

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