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South Korea - A passion for football

It's October 2010. I’m sat in a Manchester United themed restaurant and bar just outside Daegu City centre in a place called Manchon-dong, watching Bolton Wanderers against Liverpool.

In South Korea at that time you could watch any match that involved Manchester United, Bolton Wanderers, Celtic or AS Monaco.

South Korean stars such as Park Ji Sung (pictured) and Chung Young Lee were making an impact for Manchester United and Bolton Wanderers.

At the time, Celtic was a popular club to follow in South Korea as two of the country's national team players, Ki Sung-Yueng and Cha Du-Ri, were playing for the Scottish giants at the time, and there was interest in AS Monaco because of Park Chu-Young, who went on to join Arsenal.

But how - and when - did South Korea become a contributor to world of football, and why is very little known about its K-League, even in South Korea?

World Cup qualification - Group stage elimination

Up until the summer 2002, South Korea was a relatively small contributor to the footballing world. The national team had qualified for every World Cup between 1986 and 1998 but had only achieved group stage elimination.

The K-League, South Korea’s national league, was founded in 1983, but struggled to become nationally and internationally recognised.

Asia’s biggest football export at the time, Hidetoshi Nakata, came from South Korea’s neighbours Japan when he’d been signed for Italian giants AS Roma, for over £20 million in 2000.

In 1996 South Korea agreed to form the unlikeliest of relationships with Japan, in order to successfully beat Mexico for the right to host the 2002 World Cup.

Upon winning the right to host the 2002 finals South Korea quickly got to work and started to build an array of impressive football stadiums.

A nation hails Hiddink

Two of the biggest stadiums, FC Seoul’s and Daegu FC’s home grounds hold more than 66,000. Stadia aside, arguably the biggest coup came when South Korea appointed Dutchman Guus Hiddink.

The well travelled coach was appointed in December 2000 and would eventually exceed all expectations, with the nation reaching the semi-finals only to lose out to Germany.

One of the biggest changes that Hiddink made was to eradicate the age-based hierarchical system that is prevalent in South Korean society.

Prior to Hiddink’s appointment players would sit in age groups with senior players receiving preferential treatment. This resulted in younger players being insular and not expressing themselves on or off the pitch.

In Part 2 of this article I will address how this attitude was mirrored within the K-League.

Senior and junior players became equals

By the start of the 2002 World Cup South Korea had become a lot more professional and were comparable to the standards set by the European heavyweights. Senior and junior players had become equals and were judged on merit rather than age.

The team had become fitter and stronger, through learning the importance of football specific conditioning and nutrition, and self-discipline issues such as players turning up late to training had all been eradicated.

Senior players that had been unmotivated and one paced had become hungry for World Cup glory.

All the hard work seemed to be worthwhile with South Korea starting the tournament by topping their group above Poland, Portugal and the USA.

South Korea then faced Giovanni Trapattoni’s Italy who had only managed to come second in their group behind Mexico. On the 18th June 2002 at the Daejeon World Cup stadium South Korea played host to what would become one of the most thrilling matches of the tournament.

Dramatic winner

Ahn Jung-Hwan scored a dramatic winner in the 116 minute, making up for his earlier missed penalty. The game finished 2-1 with South Korea booking a trip to Gwangju World Cup stadium to face Spain.

This game also went to extra-time and penalties and the five South Korean penalty takers didn’t put a foot wrong and scored each penalty.

The same couldn’t be said for Spain’s Joaquin who at 21 years old, in front of 44,000 screaming South Korean fans, fluffed his lines, placing a tame effort to the keeper’s bottom left corner.

Unfortunately for South Korea they didn’t get the fairytale ending and were knocked with a respectable 1-0 defeat in the semi-final by a well disciplined German side led by Rudi Voeller.

Although they hadn’t reached the final it didn’t stop millions of South Koreans celebrating in the country's capital Seoul.

So with a very successful World Cup the scene was set for South Korean football to flourish, or was it?

Part 2 of this article will reveal what has happened since.

By Shaun Spencer

Shaun Spencer is a scout for Manchester City and the head football coach at the University of Central Lancashire.

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