Monday, September 8, 2014

Stielike, Seoul, Struggles - September in South Korea

This has been one crazy summer and most in Korean football are glad to see the back of it. The events of the World Cup are well-known. What comes next remains to be seen.

The search for Stielike

When the KFA reluctantly accepted the resignation of Hong Myung-bo in early July, they had no idea as to the identity of his replacement. Indeed, a number of senior figures in the organisation also resigned following the World Cup failure including vice-president Huh Jung-moo and chairman of the technical committee Hwangbo Kwan. His successor is Lee Yong-soo, who held the post back in 2002. Lee and the new committee wanted a European with World Cup experience, club experience and experience in developing young players as well as decent English skills.

Bert Van Marwijk was the name on top of the list. Lee went to the Netherlands to talk to the man who led the Oranje to the final of the 2010 World Cup but the deal broke down mainly due to the Dutchman's desire to spend much of his time in Europe. The KFA wanted someone willing to get involved at all levels of the country's football scene.

Former Juventus coach Ciro Ferrara was also high on the list but in the end, the successful candidate was something of a surprise. Uli Stielike was a fantastic midfielder for Real Madrid and West Germany in the seventies and eighties yet his coaching career is not quite as impressive. Unremarkable national team spells with Switzerland in the late eighties and the Ivory Coast in the previous decade are peppered by short-lived club terms, the most recent of which came in the volatile coaching region of West Asia. Years spent with German youth teams at the turn of the century appealed to the KFA and basically being German helped.

Reaction was not especially positive or negative, though there is some relief that the post has been filled with the Asian Cup just four months away. Friendlies in October and November will give him a little time, though not much, to prepare for Australia. His bosses are looking longer-term but a bad start will, obviously, make it tough for a man whose record does not excite. Fans seem open-minded but there is not much credit in the bank.

Stumbles in the K-League

Pohang Steelers and Jeonbuk Motors have been here before and know well what it takes to win the K-League title. That doesn't mean they won't be frustrated at their recent slips in form. The only positive is that the two defeats in the last three that Jeonbuk have suffered and the dropping of eight points from the last four games from Pohang have not been capitalised on by rivals such as Suwon Bluewings.

Lee Dong-gook
Jeonbuk are three points clear and the happier of the two, especially after their recent and clinical 2-0 win in Pohang, their bogey team in recent years. Lee Dong-gook was on the scoresheet once again and remains on the top of the K-League goalscoring charts, not bad for a 35 year-old. Such form earned him a recall to the national team and the Lion King scored two fine goals in a very welcome 3-1 win over Venezuela on September 5.

At the bottom, Gyeongnam FC are propping up the other 11 and despite not playing that badly of late have just not been getting the results that they have deserved. Two-time Asian champs and seven-time domestic winners Seongnam are starting to climb free of trouble, helped the return of legendary coach Kim Hak-beom. If he can perform anything like the same magic as the middle part of last decade, fans in the satellite city are in for a happier time.

The only team in excellent form are FC Seoul. The 2012 champions started the season so badly that their recent run is not going to end in a title challenge but it should at least ensure a top-half finish. Sixteen points from the last eighteen has taken some pressure off coach Choi Yong-soo though whether this season is regarded as a success will depend on what happens in a different theatre.

Seoul of Asia?

That is one of the slogans that can be seen around the big stadium in the capital city. Seoul reached the final of the Asian Champions League in 2013, losing on away goals to Guangzhou Evergrande. The Koreans are now one game (if two legs) away from a repeat performance after seeing off Pohang in a turgid quarter-final that ended goalless after 210 minutes of football. The Steelers failed to score a single spot-kick and Choi Yong-soo's men sneaked through.

Western Sydney Wanderers lie in wait in the semi-final and while it will be tough, an in-form Seoul, even one not as strong as the 2013 version, should be able to get through and then take on Al Ain or Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia.

If Seoul can collect a first continental title, then they will at least be able to end what has been a traumatic year for Korean football on a high.

No comments: