Read more articles by LEONID PETROV

Korean Football at the Crossroads:

A View from Inside


by Leonid A. Petrov

in J.Horne, W.Manzenreiter eds., "Japan, Korea and the 2002 World Cup",

London: Routledge, 2002, pp.106-120 

Korean football between Asia and Europe 

Football is said to be a game played not by feet but by brains. Thinking speed and mental fortitude govern the game. These qualities, as well physical endurance, must be nurtured and trained in football players from childhood. It is this ability to concentrate and make quick and educated decisions that ultimately distinguishes winners from losers. It is also said that the East will never understand the West. Emotional incongruity between the Orient and the Occident has been the source of cultural misunderstandings and religious conflicts. In this respect, the phenomenon of football which is universally loved and understood creates an extraordinary cultural bridge. Quick reaction and cohesive teamwork, if complemented with outstanding physical fitness, deserve respect and admiration in any country.

Korean historians tend to find the roots of the game deep in their national history. The first official chronicles Samguk Sagi [Records of the Three Kingdoms] which contains references related to a ball-kicking game called ch’ukku was compiled nine hundred years ago. However, football in its modern contour came to the hermit Korean kingdom relatively late. Korean Football Association (KFA) historians name 1882, when the British battleship “Flying Fish” entered the port of Chemulp’o (today’s Inchŏn) and its sailors taught the locals how to play (KFA 2001). Since then, the game has always been associated with the West and its traditions.

Antipathy towards Japan, the coloniser, impelled Koreans to admire Europe and America even more. Nevertheless, throughout the first half of the twentieth century European culture and expertise were destined to be copied from the Japanese patterns of modernisation. The first football-related administrative bodies in Korea were in imitation of its Japanese counterparts. In 1928 the first Chosŏn Referees Association (Chairman: Sin Ki-jun) and then in 1933 the Chosŏn Football Association (Chairman: Pak Sŭng-bin) were set up in Korea.

Korean football was not recognised by the world community until after Korea regained its independence in 1945. The newly established Korean national team qualified for the Olympic Games in London in 1948. In 1954, Koreans qualified for the World Cup in Switzerland and twice, in 1956 and in 1960, won the Asian Cup. However, during the 1960s and 1970s professional football in Korea continued to retain many specifically Asian features. Being traditionally based on hierarchical structure of power and clan ties, the Korean society was not ready to produce an adequate number of professional players adept in playing the creative and brisk game the West was suggesting. Koreans themselves knew that the problem existed, but to eliminate outdated practices a great deal of patience and courage was required. 

In Korea, corporal punishment in education and particularly in physical training was widely practiced. The Confucian morality to which Korea has ardently adhered for the last half a millennium does not restrain a senior from beating a junior. To the contrary, the virtues of filial piety and fraternal respect are unimaginable without periodic thrashing. Even nowadays, school and college students may be flogged by their teachers and beaten by senior students. Thus, the coach who plays a role of a benevolent “father” has all moral rights to bash his prodigal “children”, presumably for their own benefit. Anecdotes about the furious coach who during the halftime break hits a slack player with his own shoe are so common as to induce nothing but a smile.

Interestingly, even after the collapse of the Communist Bloc, many Koreans still have the impression that its outstanding achievements in sport, ballet, arts and sciences were reached exclusively due to severe beatings and fear. Maybe it was the case for North Korea, but definitely not for Eastern Europe. Considering their society highly democratic, football authorities in South Korea often hesitate to impose even minimal elements of discipline on their elite players. Unsatisfactory game result is a more likely reason to attract the anger of the Korean sponsor than a drinking incident in the team.

Despite the tremendous interest which South Korean population demonstrates in football, this game has never been as popular as, for example, baseball. The poor quality of playing fields and the shortage of stadiums seriously impeded the development of professional football in the country: the Korean Super League was established only in 1983. Severe winters and the short vegetation period restrain ordinary schools and colleges from having on their territories anything more sophisticated that a bare-land sports ground. The low level of professionalism among school football coaches often reduced the content of their training to a mere endurance exercise. In provincial towns, the coach would simply hold a loudspeaker and drive his motorcar behind the group of exhausted youngsters galloping along the hard asphalt road.

Needless to say, favouritism and bribery were omnipresent in Korea’s sports circles. To secure a place in the playing squad, parents of a team member were expected to treat the coach to a tailored suit, an expensive gift or an envelope full of cash. To monitor and eliminate such malpractices, special Technical Committees were established in the structure of all provincial football associations in Korea. However, in disputes with the local groups, the inadequacy of legal framework frequently left the Seoul-based KFA powerless. Like anywhere in the world, football in Korea has always been torn between club and country. Pursuing their immediate interests, professional clubs or universities could easily refuse to dispatch their player to join the national team for scheduled trainings or games.

On the international scene, Korea for long continued to demonstrate better results than Japan. The Korean determination to win is well known and is reflected in their no-nonsense style of aggressive play. However, due to the reasons mentioned above, for decades Korean football retained the qualities of “Asian football”. As the competition for the top place in Asia intensified and Korea began to worry about its superiority, emulation of European football traditions became indispensable. Searching for solutions, Korea turned, as so often, to emulate the experience of Japan. In 1965, Dettmar Cramer, a German who had coached Franz Beckenbauer, was invited to Japan to help the Japanese establish a strong amateur football program which later led to the formation of the Japan Soccer League (JSL). Cramer’s influence had a lasting impact upon Japanese football and swiftly enabled Japan to take the bronze medal at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

In the late 1980s, to make sure that Korea would not be overtaken by Japan, the KFA invited Dettmar Cramer to serve as a technical coach and to help develop the Korean League. However, due to thorny relationships with professional clubs and their coaches the aging foreign expert failed to attain anything significant. Public interest in his activity and financial support for it were also limited. As the result, all Cramer’s efforts to boost the quality of football education at high school and university levels proved to be futile. Nowadays, very little trace can be detected of his work in Korea.

In July 2000 at the China Football Conference held in Beijing, when asked to give some advice to Chinese soccer organizers, Dettmar Cramer said: “You need patience. You can build a mansion overnight, but you can't develop a footballer overnight." The following year, Cramer talked more about the process of preparation of young players in different regions: 

Developing young players is the same the world over. The priority should be improving technical skills. Many countries in the last decade went the wrong way. The priority by Federations and big clubs was selection based on size, physical fitness and strength and training was then based on enhancing these qualities. I think this was wrong. Whether Youth or Professional, soccer is a technical game. Of course physical and mental fitness and tactics are important but the core of the game is skill and technical training should be the foundation of youth development. (Galustian A. 2001)

In preparing their professional players, Koreans went the way which Cramer named as “wrong”. Nevertheless, Korean national teams continued accumulating skill and experience through participation in international competitions. They qualified for World Cups in Mexico 1986, Italia 1990, USA 1994 and France 1998. The 1994 World Cup became the most successful event ever for the Korean squad. In a pulsating game, where they came back from a 3:0 interval deficit to lose just 3:2, they really could have accounted for Germany, the former world champion. The secret was simple: on the bench beside the Korean national coach, Kim Ho, was sitting a Russian technical advisor. Employed by the KFA for the last six months of preparations before the Cup’s finals, the 48 year-old Anatoli Bychovets managed to elevate the technical and physical level of the team to a new height. For this, Bychovets quickly gained the unfeigned affection of Korean footballers and the outspoken abhorrence of their coaches.

In contrast, despite the efforts of its Dutch-born head coach Johans Oft, the Japanese national team failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup finals. Understanding numerous positive aspects of the foreign football influence, the Japan Football Association (JFA) promptly replaced the ineffective Dutchman with a Brazilian football star, Paolo Roberto Falcao. The expectations were that Falcao would be able to lead the national squad until the 1998 World Cup in France (Cho Byŏng-mo 1994). It should be mentioned that the fad for foreign coaches and instructors had already taken hold in the Asian football world. The Polish coach Peknicek took over the helm of UAE football from the Ukrainian-born Valeri Lobanovsky, who left only to assume the same position in Kuwait. Saudi Arabia employed Ivo Bortman, and Evaristo Masedo was training Qatar (Ch’oe Kyu-il 1994).  

Thus, the KFA began looking for an appropriate person from overseas to train the national squad in Korea. After the 1994 World Cup, though, there was little doubt that if any foreigner were to assume this post, it would be Bychovets, the former USSR head coach and the winner of the 1988 Seoul Olympic gold. After a series of negotiations with the Russia Sport Union, the KFA officially invited Bychovets to train and lead the Korean Olympic and national teams until the 1996 Olympiad in Atlanta.  

Russian coach and Korean players

Problems associated with the decision to appoint a foreigner to the sensitive position of the national head coach began mounting immediately. Inside the Korean football community, various groups and forces created an opposition to the choice of Chong Mong-jun, KFA President who in May 1994 was elected vice-president of the FIFA. Angry protests, emanating predominantly from the heads of professional football clubs, were based on traditional mistrust to foreigners and anticipation of inevitable communication problems and cultural predicaments. Pak Chong-hwan (Ilhwa), Hŏ Chŏng-mu (Posco), Ch’a Pŏm-gun (Hyundai) and other professional clubs’ head coaches had their own expectations concerning the half-a-million dollars worth contract. In other words, the atmosphere surrounding Bychovets’s appointment was not particularly welcoming, exactly as it was when Cramer came five years earlier.   

Anatoli Bychovets, who was also a former KGB colonel (in the 1980s he coached the Dinamo-Moscow club which unofficially belonged to the Ministry of Internal Affairs), was prepared for struggle. He promptly initiated a number of moves to deter potential enemies and surround himself with loyal and professional people. For example, Bychovets sacked his previous Korean interpreter whom he had long suspected of informing his rivals on the team atmosphere and his coaching methods. In order to form a devoted and professional coaching side of the future team, Bychovets also intended to invite a Russian trainer for goalkeepers and a physician but the KFA briskly vetoed these requests as superfluous.

The role of interpreter in professional sport is tantamount to the role of military interpreter at war. In the sweet moment of victory, nobody really appreciates him; but when things go wrong, the interpreter is the first to be blamed. Along with specific vocabulary and professional slang, a sports interpreter is usually expected to understand the hidden implications which always lie in discussions between the coach and players. Working as a Russian-Korean interpreter, one must keep in mind that, despite the commonality of tumultuous past and certain cultural similarities which unite these two Siberian peoples, the task of establishing the working communication between Koreans and Russians is particularly difficult. Both Koreans and Russians have difficulties in understanding each other’s logic and, when irritated, demonstrate exceptional bigotry.

Bychovets spent two months interviewing and testing interpreters in Seoul and Moscow. For political purpose, the KFA at first demanded that interpreter must be an ethnic Korean. But as a result of the Stalinist national policy the younger generation of Koreans in Russia and Central Asia (to where they were resettled in 1937 by the almighty leader of the world proletariat) does not speak the language of their ancestors. People of the older generation were not suitable for such a peripatetic position either. Finding a suitable Russian-speaking person in South Korea was even harder: since 1945, fervently anti-communist South Korea had been living in hermetic isolation from anything Russian. Finally, when the Korean media began mocking his meticulous search, Bychovets decided that the only factor to be counted in selecting an efficient combat interpreter was the knowledge of languages and the teamwork skills. Apart from interpreting daily meetings, theory classes, interviews and brawls, the future interpreter was expected to perform the duties of a video camera operator, personal secretary and a porter. Finally, the author of this article – a recent graduate of the Department of Oriental Studies, St.Petersburg State University – was chosen to do the job. In late August 1994, hardly having any understanding of football and its rules, I was summoned to join the team for its inaugural training.

As the national team in Korea had no base of its own, trainings were normally conducted in Kangnŭng (eastern coast) or Masan (southern coast) where optimal combination of quality football fields, accommodation and food could be found. At that time, Korea was assiduously preparing for the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima. In the longstanding competition between Korea and Japan, football had acquired a particularly high profile. Both the KFA and the JFA spared nothing just to outperform each other. With the new foreign coaches in control, expectations of winning gold medals were ubiquitous. However, for Bychovets, whose main task was preparation for the 1996 Olympics, the upcoming event was simply a landmark in the process of building a powerful national squad.

Due to restrictions imposed on the age of players participating in Olympic qualifying games and finals, Bychovets planned to create a mobile U-23 team composed of recent high school graduates and university students and augmented with several over-23 celebrities. The very first step in fulfilling this plan was to identify those Korean football stars who would become role models for the younger players. Preparation to the Asian Games included friendly matches against the Ukraine national, Saudi Arabia Olympic, and Brazilian Vasco Da Gama professional club teams. The first results were so impressive that Korea became almost certain about its victory in Hiroshima.

In the meantime, in the atmosphere of great optimism the Japanese national team was also preparing for the Asian Games. Composed of Miura and twenty other best national players selected by their Brazilian head coach Falcao, the Japanese squad did not even bother to check in to the dormitory-style overcrowded Sports Village in the outskirts of Hiroshima. Despite staying in a five-star hotel, having exquisite food and training on the best pitches, the Japanese spectacularly lost the quarterfinal match to their Korean archrivals. After that undoubtedly most thrilling match of the Asian Games, the JFA sacked Falcao and lost any further interest in the Asian Games.

Intoxicated by their tremendous success and quick cash bonuses, however, the Korean team began performing exceptionally badly, loosing one game after another. It was a disgrace when the goalkeeper Ch’a Sang-gwang missed the ball randomly kicked by a desperate Uzbekistan player from the centerfield area. Since then, for Korean football fans the very word “Uzbekistan” has acquired a grim significance akin to what “Waterloo” meant to Napoleon. Nevertheless, this bitter defeat brought to Olympic team, and the Korean football in general, one positive change: the KFA finally acceded to Bychovets’s request to invite from overseas a full-time coach for goalkeepers. Almost immediately, the Ukrainian-born 48-year-old Semen Altman arrived in Seoul to assume this position.

But harsh criticism of the “foreign coach who failed to mobilise the cream of national footballers” began circulating in the Korean media. A trivial conflict between Bychovets and Noh Chŏng-yun, a Korean football star playing in Japan, fuelled the scandal. Playing for Sanfrecce Hiroshima professional club, Noh enjoyed the love and veneration of the Japanese public but not of the new Russian head coach. Due to a minor but persisting physical trauma, Noh was not included in the main list of players. Animosity between the two culminated when Noh accused Bychovets of “communist methods” in managing people and refused to show up for the evening promenade. Apparently, it was the KFA Technical Committee’s Chairman, Pak Kyŏng-hwa, who provoked this incident as well as many other mishaps which continued to haunt the team. In fact, it was Pak’s brother who sold Noh to Sanfrecce and, therefore, who was in danger of forfeiting his profit should Noh’s reputation be doubted.

The fracas was stopped but in order to maintain the balance of interests the proportion of Koreans in the team’s coaching staff was immediately enlarged. Along with the second coach Kim Sŏng-nam, a younger brother of the KFA General Manager, the Halleluiah amateur team’s coach Yi Yong-mu was hurriedly employed. Yi’s frequent absences and unsolicited introduction of pastoral care hours for players found little resonance in the heart of the former KGB colonel. In fact, Bychovets was not against God but he was against the existence of two priests in one chapel. After the first open brawl occurred in Saudi Arabia between Bychovets and the Chairman of Technical Committee, Yi Yong-mu was dismissed. But the signs of dissent brewing behind Bychovets’ back persisted.

Korean Cup Ramen

After the sweeping success at the first round of qualifying matches against Hong Kong and Indonesia, in June 1995 the team left for France to participate in the traditional Toulon competition of Olympic squads. But instead of developing the Korean players’ ability to overcome the European and Latin American football, Bychovets found himself struggling a crisis which nearly finished in his resignation. While preparing the team to play against the U-23 teams from France, Mexico and Scotland, Bychovets discovered that his second coach, Kim Sŏng-nam, had organised a rebellion against the foreign coaching staff.

Initially, Kim subverted the team’s atmosphere by complaining that there was no need to come all that way to Toulon while in Seoul at that very moment there was the Korea Cup competition, a perfect opportunity to earn extra cash bonuses. To buy the support of players, Kim even exploited the common Korean longing for traditional spicy food, awarding several cartons of Cup Ramen (instant noodle soup packed in plastic cups) for his supporters inside the team. When they began devouring this Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) concoction for breakfast, lunch and dinner the boys soon developed diarrhoea and other gastric disorders. Not surprisingly in Toulon the team lost three matches in succession.

Suspecting that there was a broader conspiracy brewing, Bychovets accused Kim Sŏng-nam of mutiny and demanded his immediate replacement. Indeed, the rigorous discipline, hard training schedules and constant performance control which marked the daily life of the team created a potential for discontent. It is also possible that Kim’s plan was simply to ascend to the top position in Korean football himself, but due to Bychovets’ rapid and firm counterattack the whole plan failed. To remedy the precarious situation, without delay the KFA fired Kim and employed two other Korean coaches nominated by the unyielding Russian. After that the team’s performance began improving, but the mediocre result in July 1995 at the Merdeka Cup in Malaysia was clear evidence that the repercussions of Toulon crisis still persisted.

Resilience and tremendous will for victory helped Koreans in winning the first round of the Olympic qualifying matches. Of particular importance were the games against Indonesia. Trained on the playing fields of Italian club Sampdoria, where its several players were included in Primavera [Youth Squad], the Indonesian Olympic team was perfectly prepared by its German head coach. To deter the attacking force of Indonesian strikers (Kurniawan and Indriyanto) Bychovets set off his 1-4-4-1 configuration and won both matches in Jakarta and Seoul. It must also be mentioned that Indonesians used a range of “dirty tricks” varying from matchfixing approaches to undisguised fouls. As a result, several Korean players were hospitalised with traumas. For example, in the first minutes of the match, stopper Pak Ch’ung-gyun received from Kurniawan a shocking face injury.    

Preparing the team physically and theoretically, Bychovets especially emphasised the importance of matches against the non-Asian teams. For this purpose, the KFA arranged for the team more trips to Europe, north Africa, Australia and America. During the first year of preparation (Nov. 1994 – Nov. 1995), the Korean Olympic Team completed 392 trainings sessions and played 51 matches. The information table, which Bychovets offered to KFA as his annual report, states that those games ended in 29 victories, 13 draws and 9 defeats. Every single match played by the team was video-recorded and then scrupulously analysed at special theory classes. A total of 116 hours of such classes was delivered throughout that period. Bychovets put so much effort in these theory classes that he was easily upset if saw someone dozing. To make those hours more interesting, Bychovets obtained and demonstrated to Korean players a video cassette featuring the brightest episodes from the preceding Olympic and World Cup tournaments. Some of those footages carried the image of Bychovets himself scoring goals at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

Those video classes were supplemented by the so-called “interview meetings” where Bychovets individually discussed game issues with every member of the team. The players, hailing from different provinces of South Korea, spoke different regional dialects. But the major difficulty in establishing a stable flow of communication between them and the Russian coaches was not in the language or cultural differences but in enormous distance which had traditionally existed between a teacher and a student in Korea. The linking role of interpreter was to overcome this gap. Nevertheless, after two years of work, when asked by the journalists about the major difficulty for a foreign coach working in Korea, Bychovets lamented that it was the lack of understanding.  

The Confucian tradition of fraternal respect often contradicted the basic principles of football. The very idea of team is understood in Korea as a strictly hierarchical body with a captain at the top and the youngest member at the bottom. Each player knows exactly his role and position in the team and prefers to abstain from taking any extra responsibility. For example, when dribbling the ball in the rival’s penalty area a virtuous Korean player would never use a golden opportunity to score the goal himself but invariably start looking for an “elder brother” who could do it. In Korean society, individualism was traditional considered a sin. Similarly, in football teams, the desire to be “like everyone” often surpassed the desire to be “the best” giving way to a pack mentality.

Moreover, a tiny conflict of interests between player and coach in Korea could immediately grow into a fully-fledged dissent. If a footballer did not see his name among the “best eleven”, the ideals of teamwork and patriotism would instantly become meaningless to him. Overwhelmed by a narrow-minded envy such players were no longer supporters of the team but rather its fifth column. Bychovets spent two years struggling against this destructive tendency in Korean football and finally seemed to achieve his goal. Despite countless difficulties, his Olympic Team was bound to succeed, albeit in Asia only.

The Best Asian Team

The final qualifying tournament in Kuala Lumpur was considered the decisive battle on the way to Atlanta Olympics. Four teams of the Group “B” (Korea, Saudi Arabia, China and Kazakhstan) met in exhausting struggle in March – April 1996 where Korean fighting spirit underwent surprising decline followed by miraculous resurrection of.

Preparations for this crucial tournament began several months beforehand, in the middle of winter. Bychovets led the team to California to gain more experience in playing against Olympic squads of North and South America. The results were quite modest but the team continued hard training in the utmost southern point of South Korea, the island of Cheju. Thus, by the time the team arrived in Malaysia, the physical and emotional conditions of the players were slightly worn down. After a draw with Saudi Arabia and a shaky victory over Kazakhstan, the team’s spirit was on the verge of collapse. Before the game against China, the KFA President Chŏng Mong-jun met with Bychovets and tried to encourage him to win and qualify for the Olympics. Chŏng was talking about Atlanta, France and the great prospects for Korea to host the 2002 World Cup, but in his words Bychovets discerned a sorrow for the waning chance to win. Clearly, the President came to bid farewell to the diligent foreign coach.

With the arrival in Kuala Lumpur of the Technical Committee’s Chairman the team was beset by mysterious problems. On the day when the match against China was scheduled, Ch’oe Yŏng-su – the principal centre forward – collapsed during morning exercise. Ch’oe declared that he could not walk and asked for a wheelchair. The team doctor spent hours trying to restore the rising star of Korean football to health. KFA officials prescribed him an intensive session of Chinese acupuncture. Just hours before the game against China any Chinese doctor visiting the team would be treated with a large dose of suspicion. To mislead the enemy, Ch’oe was even given a pseudonym. Although the best specialist in Kuala Lumpur was invited, all his efforts were in vain: despite some obvious improvement, Ch’oe Yŏng-su felt “not hundred percent”.   

Thanks to the strategic and tactical genius of Bychovets, as well as to the sudden rainstorm which postponed the match for more than an hour, the team managed to restore its credentials. For the Russian coach, who had in his hands the updated list of the Chinese playing squad, this hour was just enough to reconfigure the routine 1-4-4-1 formation into the surprising 3-5-2. Yi Ki-hyŏng and Yi Woo-yŏng superbly performed the roles of two centre forwards. As the team’s triumph was apparent, striker Ch’oe Yŏng-su began feeling “much better” and even asked Bychovets to let him play. Korea spectacularly beat China (3:0) and then Iraq (2:1), securing its place in the Olympic finals. The celebration reached its zenith when the team won the politically important final game against Japan (2:1) and snatched the primary place in Asian football. President Kim Yŏng-sam, who was watching the game from Seoul, immediately called to Malaysia to congratulate the team members. This call was broadcast by major South Korean TV and radio stations in real time and probably was designed to raise presidential popularity slightly tarnished by a corruption investigation. President Kim praised the team members for heroism and invited them for lunch to his Ch’ŏngwadae palace.    

This nimbus of glory which began surrounding the Olympic team allowed the KFA to rest on the laurels. A number of international matches which Bychovets requested in the process of preparation for the trip to America were cancelled. It was springtime and when the first sprouts of grass began growing, the team was denied access to any decent football pitch in the country except the poorly maintained grounds of the Military Academy in T’aenŭng. Accommodation conditions were also downgraded. Instead of the usual five-star hotel, the team was shanghaied into the ragged sports village in Nowon-ku, industrial outskirts of Seoul. Bychovets called for an urgent training tour to Europe. Games against Scotland, Northern Ireland, Belgium, Denmark, Norway and Russia undoubtedly strengthened and enriched the team. But after their return to Korea in June 1994 the summer rainy season (changma) began. During the last weeks before the departure for Atlanta, team training looked more like a water-polo exercise.

To ensure that the team members were theoretically well-informed, the KFA augmented its official delegation with the General Director of the Korea Sport Science Institute. Dr. Sin Dong-sŏng illuminated the players on the mechanism of dehydration and preached against onanism. But the favourite topic of this scholar-bureaucrat was the harmful role of air conditioners. Even in Washington D.C. and Birmingham, Alabama, where the team arrived in the middle of July, Dr. Sin lectured about the dangers of artificial temperature adjustment for sportsmen. He made sure that the bus, which the Korean team used for travelling from the hotel to the training and game venues, had its air conditioner turned off. As the mean temperature in Birmingham was +32C, after an hour-long ride in a hot and stuffy coach players felt exhausted even before the game began. This scientific obscurantism continued to be practiced despite the vocal protests of Bychovets.

It must also be mentioned that Korean team arrived in America without its second goalkeeper, Yi Un-jae, who had spent two years preparing for this trip but was diagnosed with TB just several days prior to departure. The young but remarkably talented middle fielder Ko Chŏng-su was also hospitalised. In other words, things did not look good. In such adverse circumstances, Byshovets' new system 3-6-1 was often criticised as a very defensive one. Both defenders and midfielders man-marked their opponents and completely forgot about attack. The libero also played very deep. It was no surprise that in three games Koreans scored only twice. Originally, the team’s tactic was based on the quick counterattack, but often the ball was held too long or the deep passes that were supposed to reach an attacking player were not accurate enough. Even if they did get into a promising position their efforts were often too hasty or lacking in precision (FIFA 1996). At the earlier stage of the Olympic tournament, Korea did defeat Ghana (1:0) but failed to overcome Mexico (0:0). The waning physical condition and numerous traumas, which were received during the game against Mexico, undermined the fighting spirit of the team.

The final blow was delivered by Italy. By the time of the third match of the competition, the Italians had already lost two games to Mexico and Ghana and thus had no chance to proceed to the next round. Korean footballers knew that and did not expect to face any sustained defence. Nevertheless, led by the popular coach Cesare Maldini, the Italians managed to mobilise for the last bout and in hard struggle defeated Korea (2:1). Analysing the Korean team performance, FIFA Technical Report on the 1996 Olympic Football Tournament reads as follows:

Their positive qualities were physical fitness, speed and discipline. But creativity and the ability to surprise opponents were lacking. The self-confidence needed to succeed against established football nations like Italy or Mexico seems still to be lacking. In addition, despite the longer period of preparation and the matches against European and South American teams, they were not experienced enough against this kind of opposition. (FIFA 1996)

In preparing his team to play not against European muscles but against European brains, Bychovets appeared to be insightful. But his two-year-long attempt to remove the Asian label from Korean football had failed. The only news which could console devastated football fans in Korea on that day was that the Japanese team had also dropped out of the Olympic tournament.    

Whither the World Cup?

The defeat of the Olympic team in America did not overshadow the convivial atmosphere which was brought to Korea by FIFA’s decision regarding the place of the next World Cup. Korea’s expectations to host the World Cup had been escalating and reached a peak in early 1996. Interest in football quickly transformed into a national obsession. Diego Maradona visited Korea to give football master classes for schoolchildren; housewives were wearing T-shirts and caps welcoming the 2002 World Cup to Korea; non-government organizations were bombarding FIFA with letters warning that if the decision were not made in favour of Korea the whole nation would plunge in deep distress. Animosity dating to Japan's occupation of the Korean peninsula dominated the bitter bidding campaign.

However, this movement was hardly supported by any practical actions. As previously, the improvement of football fields and the construction of new stadiums remained a wish list of Korean football community. The only pitch which could conform with the highest international standards, the Chamsil stadium in Seoul, kept its doors closed against national team training. The KFA had to require its national squads to tour around the country hunting for vacant grounds. In contrast, by 1996 Japan had already spent billions dollars improving existing football fields, renovating the old and constructing the new stadiums across the country. Japan's first football training facility was opened in July 1997. Designed for intensive training of the Japanese national team, J.League, JFL and L.League clubs, that facility also welcomed football teams run by business companies, universities, high, intermediate and elementary schools.

The final decision concerning the venue for the next World Cup was made at the end of Joao Havelange’s presidentship, when FIFA politics proved decisive. In a move underscoring the acrimony toward Havelange, world football's ruling body was prepared to award South Korea the 2002 World Cup. The 15 potential votes for South Korea were not so much out of support for the bid, but mainly to hand Havelange a humiliating public defeat (Associated Press 1996). If Havelange had not relented, the executive committee would have voted 15-6 in favour of South Korea. But Lennart Johansson, UEFA president and rival of Havelange, won support from European, Asian and African members of FIFA's executive committee and lobbied strongly for both Korea and Japan as co-hosts.

Japan, which had been opposed to having co-hosts, agreed to go along with the plan when it became clear that South Korea would otherwise win the vote. Havelange, who previously had ruled out co-hosting and spoken in favour of Japan's bid, backed down on the day before the scheduled 1 July vote. Thus, both South Korea and Japan were hurriedly selected to share the tournament. On 31 May 1996, when Havelange announced that FIFA had agreed to change its statutes and allow for dual hosting, both Korea and Japan felt in some way disappointed. For example, in his live TV interview the KFA General Manager talked about his great delight mixed with regret that the whole event must be shared with the Japanese. The reaction of the JFA General Manager was more straightforward – he simply resigned.       

The consequences of that disillusionment are still palpable. Disagreement concerning the opening and closing ceremonies, the order in which two co-hosting countries should be officially named, as well as the ongoing scandal about the Japanese high school history textbooks, have already damaged the image of the 2002 World Cup. The economic downturn, together with the renewed flirtation with strong nationalism in Korea and Japan, is not the best background for this global festival either. Mutual disparagement and distrust between the two archrivals often prevail over the spirit of cooperation, prompting sceptical remarks akin to the one made by a Japanese journalist saying that “South Korea seems washed in high hopes that the 2002 World Cup will be as successful as the 1988 Olympics” (The Korea Times 2000).

Both Korea and Japan continue to prepare their national teams for the great football competition. However, the main hurdle for the co-hosts’ success on the pitch will be whether the two nations can reach the last 16 in the 32-team tournament. Korean football, once a powerhouse in Asia, disappointed local fans with its poor performance in the 1998 World Cup and 1999 Asian Cup, and even failed to qualify for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The reason for such quick decline of the national team after Bychovets was probably its swift return to the habitual methods of selecting and training footballers. A quickly changing sequence of local head coaches between 1996 and 2000 brought to Korean football nothing but disappointment. All were removed from the position due to poor performance, while one even had his training license suspended.

Finally, after the JFA chose a French coach Philippe Troussier, the KFA’s reluctance to hire another foreigner also dissipated. Since early 2001, the Korean national team is being led by the former Real Madrid head coach, Dutchman Guus Hiddink. It seems that Hiddink is not having an easy time, and that he suffers from the same kind of adjustment problems Cramer and Bychovets faced when they first came to Korea. Hiddink’s main task is to deconstruct and reconstruct the way Korean national team plays (Varcoe F. 2001). Interestingly, two thirds of Hiddink’s current team players are former members of Bychovets’ Olympic squad.

In other words, the history of Korean football is repeating itself in cycles: every five years the Koreans hire a European coach and enable him to mould their best players into a formidable team of international standard. But after the contract is over and the guest-coach is gone home, things return to their normal, Asiatic routine. Due to this long-lasting vacillation between the global and the home-grown, Korean football, as well as football in Japan, has not yet achieved the result it deserves. They both are still lingering at the crossroads, uncertain whether to follow the generously paid recommendations of their foreign tutors or continue groping for their own-style football. In this sense, will the 2002 World Cup help Korea be resolute and make the decision?  


Alfred Galustian (2001), ‘Dettmar Cramer, Interview with Alfred Galustian’, Coerver Coaching, Online. Available HTTP < > (accessed 10 September 2001)

Associated Press (1996), ‘FIFA Friction Spurred 2002 World Cup Deal’, 14 June 1996. Online. Available HTTP <> (accessed 10 September 2001)

Cho Byŏng-mo (1994), “Il Taep’yo Taep’ok Mulgari’ [Japan National Team is Ploughing Through], Sŭp’ochi Sŏul, 17 September 1994, p. 6

Ch’oe Kyu-il (1994), ‘Taeri Chŏnjaeng’ [The War of Proxies], Ilgan Sŭp’och’i, 23 September 1994, p. 9

FIFA (1996) Technical Report, 1996 Olympic Football Tournament. Online. Available

< > (accessed 10 September 2001) 

KFA (2001), History of Football in Korea. Online. Available HTTP

<,1654,A20237,00.html > (accessed 10 September 2001)

The Korea Times (2000), Editorial ‘Calls Addressed to Seoul ASEM’, 19 October 2000.

Varcoe Fred (2001), ‘S.Korea must buck up before World Cup’, The Japan Times, 21 June 2001.

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