Craig Branch reveals why, despite their World Cup heroics, the expected exodus of South Korea's stars from the domestic K-League hasn't come to fruition

South Korea gained worldwide plaudits for both their team and their fans during the World Cup. An estimated seven million sup­porters took to the streets up and down the peninsula for the semi-final against Germany, and it’s thought that over 22 million people con­gre­gated over the course of their six games.

Traditionally, the national team has take pre­­­cedence over club football in Korea but in his final press conference, World Cup coach Guus Hiddink suggested this needed to alter. “In every other advanced country of football, the prosperity of the professional foot­ball lea­gue is the basic element for the development of the sport.” His players agreed, dis­playing a banner reading “CU@K-League” after their third place play-off defeat against Turkey.

Their plea was heeded when the domestic league got under way just a week after the World Cup final. With five rounds of matches played so far, fans have been turning out in huge numbers, a record aggregate of 120,000 watching the opening four games. However, things are not as rosy as they may seem. The game at home is in danger of being stifled from within.

Nine of the ten teams in the K-League are owned by chaebol, huge industrial conglomerates like Samsung, LG and Hyundai. The corporations are reluctant to sell their star players to European teams, believing the big names are needed at home in order to keep the league competitive and credible, and fearing that the new-found interest in the K-League would dwindle if they left. Both the league and the FA seem pre­pared to allow the chaebol to dictate to them.

Significantly, the Korean FA chief and FIFA vice president, Dr Chung Mong-joon, is also chief executive at Hyundai, a company founded by his father. Critics say the Korean FA should be looking to expand the league (currently there are no professional teams based in Seoul, a city of 12 million), investing more in youth development and trying to attract a better qual­ity of foreign player.

In contrast to Japan, the Korean league has always struggled to attract overseas stars. There are 20 Brazilian professionals in the K-League at present but none is an international, and the rest of the foreign contingent is drawn from Africa and eastern Europe. The well-travelled Dalian Atkinson was the last English player and he is scarcely a household name. Korea does have a number of players in the J-League, and a couple already in Europe (Ahn Jung-hwan and Seol Ki-hyeon), but so far only two more have moved to European clubs since the World Cup: Lee Eul-yong to Trabzonspor, and Cha Du-ri to Bayer Lever­kusen, though the latter is likely to be loaned out to a smaller club initially.

The most recent example of corporate in­ter­ference involves the international for­ward Lee Chun-soo, currently with Ulsan Hyundai Tigers. Shortly after the finals, he was actively pursued by a host of foreign clubs, with the most persistent interest coming from South­ampton. The Saints wanted him to join their tour of Scandinavia, but even though he had played only one K-League game for Ulsan, Hy­undai decided not to release him, citing “wide gaps in transfer fees and the contractual per­iod”. The main reason Lee joined the club from his university team was that Ulsan promised they would not stand in his way if offers came for him from abroad. However, this has not been the case in practice.

Despite their performance in the World Cup, the national team will only be recognised as an established force in the international game when they achieve good results away from home. But the top players won’t gain experience of a higher standard of football as long as the chaebol choose to reserve their bus­iness assets for the domestic market.

From WSC 187 September 2002. What was happening this month

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