For the tenth successive occasion and the 11th time in their history, South Korea have qualified for the World Cup, an impressive achievement, especially when it is considered they were not a FIFA member in the early years of the competition, and, at one stage, were denied entry to the preliminary competition based on politics.
Famously in 2002 they co-hosted the tournament with Japan, the same year that they went all the way to the semi-finals, aided by some generous refereeing in their matches against Italy and Spain.
That is though the only time they have qualified from the group stage, a record they will aim to improve on in Qatar later this month, where they have been drawn with Portugal, Ghana and Uruguay.
History of football in Korea
Although in ancient times Koreans played a ball game called “Chuk-gut” which has many similarities to contemporary football, it was the visiting British sailors who first introduced the game to the country in the late 19th century.
By the early 1900s it had become an increasing part of Korean nationalism, and a symbol of the rivalry between the cities of Seoul and Pyongyang.
Following World War 2 the country was partitioned but what was intended only to be a temporary situation was cemented by the Korean War (which technically has never ended). In 1966 a North Korea team reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in England, pulling off a shock result against Italy in the process.
The current scenario and domestic football in South Korea
Today, 25% of South Koreans identify football as their favourite sport, which is just ahead of baseball in terms of popularity.
The K League (the top professional league in South Korea) runs from March to November each year and, featuring 12 regional teams, is one of the most competitive in Asia.
The Pohang Steelers are the second most successful club in the history of the Asian Champions League, having win it three times. Seongnam FC, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Suwon Samsung Bluewings and Ulsan Hyundai have all won it twice. In all, South Korea has produced almost twice as many winners as second place Japan.
Below the K League there are feeder divisions organised under the auspices of the KFA (Korean Football Association). All the major teams have youth and academy systems, although the most talented players may choose to go abroad early because of the higher standards and opportunities there.
This has also led to some distortion in wealth and playing resources between the richer and less well-off clubs. Attempts by the K League to introduce an FFP system have met resistance from club owners, whilst some football experts have warned it could harm their competitiveness in international competitions and result in a talent drain of star players to other leagues.
A feature of South Korea is that professional clubs are owned by either conglomerates or municipal governments, who finance teams through either grants or corporate sponsorships. Players, consequently, are among the best paid in Asia, and they can afford to attract top quality coaches as well.
Regionally, the South Korean team have won gold at the last two Asian games and have twice won the Asian championship.
The current coach of the national team is the Portuguese Paulo Bento, although they have had mixed results with foreign coaches, some of whom have failed to adapt to their environment. Famously, though, it was a Dutchman Guus Hiddink who enjoyed the greatest success with the 2002 team, placing an emphasis on fitness and endless running, pressing team from the front, and adopting bolder tactics than the style of defensive football than the team was used to employing.
Domestically over a million South Koreans play football on a regular basis, although there are only 31,000 registered players. Every weekend and holidays, parks and municipal areas are packed with teams at grassroots level.
The success of domestic teams, as well as the national side, helps generate interest in the sport in the country, but South Koreans are also immensely proud of their players that have gone on to enjoy success in European leagues, like Park Ji-Sung at Manchester United and more recently Heung-Min Son. When Son’s Tottenham team came on a pre-season tour in July they were mobbed wherever they went.
A recent survey found that 20% of South Koreans now identify as Tottenham fans.
There is also an element in which the success of South Korean sporting teams and individuals are used by the media in the country to reinforce a sense of nationalism. No other phenomenon has the same ability to create a “sense” of us among the mass of the population.
Like all leagues, South Korean teams do have foreign players in their squads, but they have to be of the right quality, as overseas stars are not prioritised in their league system. That means there is a clear preference for players with a European or South American background. Those from other Asian countries are usually overlooked.
At the same time, the K league does not make much money from selling broadcasting rights, and revenue from ticket sales is limited. The average attendance at top flight games is around the 8,000 mark, although national team games are usually sell-outs.
One reason cited for South Korea’s relative success in football is that their people are, in relative terms, taller than those from many Asian countries. They also are better off. Statistically, wealthy countries with a tall population tend to enjoy success as footballing nations.
South Korea’s hopes for the 2022 World Cup
As for what constitutes success in Qatar, in South Korea, then their first aim must be to get out of the group stage for only the second time in their history, and for the first time since they were hosts.
In theory, given that this is only the second tournament to be played on Asian soil, the conditions are in place for this to be achieved.
Given that there has been a collective “question mark” over the achievements of the 2002 team that would be a major statement of progress in itself. Anything beyond that would be an unexpected and welcome bonus.
This article will be followed by a podcast episode with someone of South Korean descent to discuss coaching, recruitment, and the pathways to success in South Korea. So look out for this via our podcast, and update on this article.
As with our podcast – like, comment, share and subscribe/follow. We’ll posting as usual vía social media keeping up with the stories as they unfold in the coming weeks. As always if you have any questions or queries. Email us at email@example.com or tweet or DM us at @teamghanaeu on IG or Twitter.
Written by Shantanu Gupta
- Son (https://www.chindaily.com.cn/)
- Pohang Steelers (https://www.reuters.com)
- Guus Hiddink (https://football-tribe.com)
- South Korea Tottenham Fans (https://www.thetimes.co.uk)
- Paulo Bento (http://www.koreaherald.com/)
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