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What do Korean players need to succeed in Europe?

Posted by Seamus Walsh on March 8, 2010

This is obviously a pressing issue for Korean football, and one which it looks like they’re getting closer to solving, with a number of players now having played in Europe. The first thing to note is that Korea has as much chance as any other country of producing top quality players. The reasons there have been so few are fairly obvious:

  • The domestic league has only been running for less than thirty years. The leagues in England and Italy are over a century old, with those in France, Spain and other countries approaching that.
  • The league only has 15 teams. Less teams means less players. Less players means less top quality players.
  • Education Fever. It’s well documented how important education is to building a future for kids in Korea. I worry that with so much pressure on them to study every hour of the day and night, less kids are getting a chance to play sport, or to follow their passion if the opportunity arises.

Empty seats for the K-League’s biggest team, FC Seoul

These are big issues, and solving them is beyond the scope of this blog, although I would like to quickly stress that with time the situation will inevitably improve, and I don’t think it will take a century before Korea is also producing players of the quality of those produced by the top footballing nations in Europe and South America. Having quite a small population inevitably means there will be less great players than there are coming from somewhere like Brazil, but the important thing is to raise the overall quality of all Korean players. In my view, a youth system like that in France would be best suited to the South Korean football climate. This would involve talented young players attending a footballing institute which also functions as a school, meaning they would receive both standard and footballing education, while also allowing them to be attached to the academy of a professional club. I’ll deal with this issue in more detail in a later post, however.

As for Korean players in Europe, one stands above all the rest in the contemporary game: Park Ji-sung. He’s achieved phenomenal success, perhaps most notably being the first Asian player to win the Premier League, to play in the Champions League final, and to win a Champions League winners medal, and the first (and only) Asian player to play in four Champions League semi-finals.

Park Ji-sung, Korea’s leading light in Europe

So what’s been the secret to his success? Well, the first reason was Guus Hiddink, his coach for the national team and then PSV Eindhoven. Hiddink obviously saw the potential Park had, and luckily he was in a position to offer him the opportunity to come to Europe. Unfortunately, not many Korean players have that sort of relationship with successful European coaches who can ensure they make it to Europe.

After moving, however, I think Park simply played his natural game, and let his talent show through. He works very hard in every aspect of his game, and that’s something you can really see in his performances – he never stops running, never gives up, and that’s always been the case with him. Two prime examples are the winning goal he scored against Portugal aged only 21 in the 2002 World Cup, and the equalizer against France late on in their group encounter in the 2006 World Cup.

This is an attitude that players such as Ki Sung-yeung, Lee Chung-yong and Park Chu-young, who have recently moved to Europe, need to have if they are to really succeed. They need to show dedication, to play to their best under any circumstances, and to understand that there is always more they can do – never be satisfied with what you’ve already achieved. It’s not simply enough to get to Europe, you need to perform once you’re there as well.

Park Chu-young scores for Monaco

On top of that I think it’s sensible to note the differences in the style of football between Europe and Asia, and also the standard level. Park Chu-young probably has the easiest transition in terms of the style of football in France, because they encourage a quick passing game, much like he will be used to playing in Korea. What he will have to do is keep working on his pace and power, which are superior in the French game to the Korean one. For Ki Sung-yeung and Lee Chung-yong, however, their period of adaption will inevitably be longer and more difficult. The British game is a lot more physical, a lot tougher than the style of football played just about everywhere else in the world. Of course there are smaller, skillful players, but even they have to get used to the harder tackles.

In this way, Park has adapted himself brilliantly. If you compare photos of him from the 2002 World Cup, or when he first moved to PSV with photos of him now, he had a much slighter frame than he currently does, and he’s clearly put a lot of effort in to improving his power and strength, as well as speed and stamina and his all round game.

Park in the 2002 World Cup

Park has improved his physical presence since moving to Europe

Lee’s pace will be an asset in the Premier League, but he will have to overcome the fact that he will be put under a lot more physical pressure in England than he’s used to, and also the fact that on average players in the Premier League will be faster than in the K-League. In my opinion, Ki will have the toughest time of all. He’s a central midfielder in a very physical, tough league. In fact, his natural technical ability – which is excellent – may actually make him more of a target for tough tackles in Scotland. Although he’s quite tall, he’s still young and has yet to completely fill out, I would say. He’ll definitely get physically stronger playing in Scotland, and the higher level of competition should mean his game improves overall as well.

There was interest in him from Manchester United a while back, although in the end nothing came of it, which I think is probably for the best, as he wasn’t ready at that time. I think he needs at least a couple of seasons playing in Scotland to try and adapt to the lifestyle, and the style of football, as well as to play more, improve his game and get stronger. This will take at least two or three seasons, and I don’t think it would be a good idea for him to move to the Premiership before then. But don’t get me wrong, he absolutely has the talent, and I think he can potentially exceed even what’s been achieved by Park. Time will tell, but for now he knows what needs to be done.

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One Response to “What do Korean players need to succeed in Europe?”

  1. […] even featuring on the substitutes bench for the last three games. I’ve written before about what I think it will take for him to become successful in European football, especially in British football. Mostly, he needs to adjust to living in Scotland, then adjust to […]

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