Saturday, November 3, 2007

Players Pay For Jakarta High-Jinks

The bar in Jakarta -picture courtesy of Newsis
Where to start? The climax of the K-League season has been overshadowed by tales of 'The four partymen' - the collective label given to Middlesbrough striker Lee Dong-guk, goalkeeper and captain Lee Woon-jae, Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma skipper Kim Sang-sik and Ulsan Hyundai Horang-I forward Woo Sung-young.

It was two days before Halloween when reports started to appear in the Korean press that four players had been out drinking in a hostess bar in Jakarta until the early hours of the morning of July 14. The same four apparently did the same on the evening of July 16. On the 15th, three of them started an Asian Cup game against Bahrain, one which Korea lost 2-1. That defeat left the 2002 World Cup semi-finalists on bottom of Group B with one match remaining.

At that time, there were no players named, just pictures of scantily-clad Indonesian girls talking to Korean reporters and pointing at photos. As you would expect, fans were furiously speculating as to the identity of the four who had reportedly been out until 5 am just 36 hours before a vital game.

Song Chong-guk was a favourite. The ex-Feyenoord star has earned somewhat of a reputation, deservedly or not, as a player who enjoys going out and having a good time. Hunky Japan-based striker Cho Jae-jin was another mentioned. It was the old guard who were out on the town however, and after the defeat at the hands of the West Asians, it looked like Korea were out of the competition.

The Bahrain game was a disaster. Leading 1-0 with an early (sleeper) Kim Do-heon goal, Milan Macala’s team took advantage of defensive slips at the end of each half to record a shock win.

In the mixed zone afterwards, Lee Dong-guk complained of predictable and monotonous tactics. The Middlesbrough striker certainly had a new routine of his own and headed back to the same bar the evening after, in an attempt, in the words of goalkeeper Lee, to 'boost morale.'

Fortunately for the Taeguk Warriors, Saudi Arabia thrashed Bahrain in the final group game to allow Korea to squeeze into the quarters with a narrow victory over Indonesia. It hasn't been lost on fans that Lee Woon-jae then went on to become the best goalkeeper in the tournament and it was largely down to the Suwon shotstopper that Korea ousted Iran on spot kicks in Kuala Lumpur - perhaps nightlife in the Malaysian capital doesn't measure up to its Indonesian counterpart. That was the high point of the summer for Pim Verbeek and players. A semi-final penalty shootout against Iraq brought the opposite result though Lee was at his best again while denying Japan in the third/fourth play-off. It may have been his last appearance.

Verbeek resigned and returned to Rotterdam, Lee Dong-guk went to Middlesbrough and the other three came back to Korea to fight for the K-League title and it all went well until South Korean internet site Newsis started sniffing around an Indonesian hostess bar.

On October 30, a Tuesday, the KFA published an official apology on its website after the four players had been named and definitely shamed by an angry media that was in the mood for blood.

They got tears that same evening when Lee Woon-jae and Woo appeared at KFA house to give a press conference. The players, in between sobs and dabbing of eyes with hankies, apologized and asked for forgiveness. Kim Sang-sik issued a statement containing similar sentiments.

Lee Woon-jae at press conference

Lee was in action the following night in the penultimate round of the K-League play-off series. “I played through my tears,” he said after Suwon lost to a late single goal at the hands of Pohang Steelers. Suwon’s season was finally over and Pohang progressed to the final against Seongnam.

That night Lee drank again but not, this time, in some exotic bar and this time he was with his wife. At 1:30 am, the hero of 2002 was talking to a Sports Chosun journalist on the telephone. “I can’t sleep,” ol’ spider hands confessed. “I am drinking beer with my wife. Because of one moment of stupidity, I have lost everything.”

In a disciplinary hearing on November 2, Lee, like the three others, lost the right to play for the national team for 12 months. As captain, he was banned from KFA-organised tournaments for three years, one more than his drinking buddies.

Talk hasn’t quite turned back to football yet but Pohang and Seongnam do battle in the two-legged title decider on November 4 and 11.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile

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