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Asian Cup

S. Korea Reaches Asian Cup Final for the First Time in 27 Years

by STEVE HAN | @steve_han

After notching a 2-0 win over Iraq in the rainy semifinal of this year’s Asian Cup in Sydney, Australia on Monday, the South Korean men’s soccer team has booked its place in the final of the Asian Cup for the first time since 1988.

Forward Lee Jung-hyub opened the scoring in the 20th minute after he leaped past the Iraqi defenders to head home Kim Jin-su’s sweeping diagonal free kick from the right side. The 23-year striker, who was largely an unknown player before Korea’s head coach Uli Stielike selected him in the roster for the Asian Cup, now has two goals in the tournament.

Only five minutes into the second half, Lee rose to the occasion again when he chested down a lobbed pass for Kim Young-gwon, whose left-footed half volley deflected off of an Iraqi defender and found the net, sealing the historic victory for Korea.

“The coach just asked me to do exactly what I’ve done in training,” Lee said after the match. “A forward has to score. That’s my job. I spoke to Coach Stielike privately after we came to Sydney. He told me, ‘Don’t feel pressured. I’ll take responsibility regardless of how well or bad you play.’ His trust helped me a lot and I’ve been getting better every match.”

The final will take place at the same venue in Sydney on Saturday at 1 a.m. PT. Korea will play the winner of Tuesday’s semifinal match between Australia and United Arab Emirates.

“The first reason we have to win this competition is for the pride we have for the Korean national team,” said Ki Sung-yueng, Korea’s newly-appointed captain. “The second reason is for the players [Lee Chung-yong and Koo Ja-cheol] who got injured and had to leave the team during the tournament. Now that we’re in the final, we’ve got to win the title. Our desperation is higher than ever. We would feel hugely undone if we don’t win it now.”

South Korea hasn’t won the Asian Cup since 1960 when it hosted what was then only a four-team competition, which has grown into a 16-team affair over the past half-century. In addition, the last time Korea even played in an Asian Cup final was in 1988 when it lost to Saudi Arabia after a penalty shoot-out. Since then, the Taegeuk Warriors haven’t advanced further than the semifinals.

Going into Saturday’s final, Korea is carrying an all-time record of a 15-match undefeated streak in the Asian Cup (losses in penalty shoot-outs are considered as draws). In addition, Korea has not conceded a goal in this tournament for 480 minutes, which is also an all-time record.

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Croatia Seeks to Naturalize Korean Soccer Player for Its National Team

by STEVE HAN | @steve_han

In the past, South Korea sought granting citizenship to imported foreign players to imported foreign players in order to improve its national soccer team. However, due to Korea’s strong sense of ethnic nationalism, the country opted not to naturalize these foreign athletes each time it faced overwhelming public opposition.

In the case of Korean soccer player Chung Woon, the tables have turned.

Croatia, a country with a national soccer team that is ranked 19th in the world (Korea is ranked 69th) by FIFA, is currently attempting to naturalize Chung after the 25-year-old’s impressive two-year stint in its top-flight professional soccer league.

“Croatia’s soccer federation made an offer to Chung to obtain citizenship,” said the player’s agent, Lee Gyeong-won, according to South Korean newspaper Ilgan Sports. “Talks have already taken place to make Chung a member of the Croatian national team. Discussions are already 90 percent complete.”

If the naturalization is processed, Chung would become the first South Korean national to represent a country aside from his birthplace in international soccer.

With Croatia vying for its fourth consecutive qualification for the 2016 European Championship, the country’s soccer federation president Davor Suker—whose legendary playing career includes winning the European title with Real Madrid in 1998 and taking Croatia to the World Cup semifinals—has publicly declared his interest in helping Chung become eligible in representing Croatia.

“It didn’t make any sense to me at first,” Chung said of his reaction to the Croatian national team’s offer, according to a recent interview with Ilgan Sports. “It’s not an easy decision to give up on my own roots to represent another country. But purely from a soccer standpoint, there are positives. No one in Korea ever recognized me, but I’ve been accepted in Croatia. So I’m seriously considering the offer.”

Chung signed a two-year contract with Croatia’s NK Istra in February 2013 as a free agent after he and his former Korean club, Ulsan Hyundai, reached an agreement to terminate his contract. The leftback out of Myongji University failed to make his mark in South Korea’s K-League as he was unable to make a single appearance during star-studded Ulsan’s historical season, in which the team won the Asian Champions League.

“I went to Croatia, thinking that if I don’t pan out there, I’d quit soccer,” Chung told WITHnews last year. “Looking back now, it was a huge gamble. But when I tell coaches in Croatia now that I’ve never played for Korea, they find it shocking, although I admit that I wasn’t very good when I played in Korea.”

Given the globalization of professional soccer, it’s difficult to determine whether South Korea’s K-League or the Prva HNL of Croatia is of higher quality. That in turn makes it even harder to objectively gauge the legitimacy of Chung’s recent success in Europe after his failure back home. In January of last year, the International Federation of Soccer History and Statistics ranked the K-League as the 23rd strongest league in the world ahead of the Prva HNL, which was ranked at 32nd. However, the Croatian clubs have convincingly outperformed their Korean counterparts at producing top-notched players.

While the K-League’s biggest talents in recent years include Ki Sung-yueng and Lee Chung-yong, who have gone on to establish respectable careers in the globally renowned English Premier League, they are still conceivably low on the totem pole of international soccer’s premier players, especially compared to the likes of Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic—players who have won titles for distinguished European powerhouses, such as Real Madrid of Spain and Germany’s Bayern Munich, after they came out of the Prva HNL.

In a league that has developed some of Europe’s finest players, Chung has been earmarked as a starter for Istra and made over 50 appearances for the club in the last two and a half seasons. He quickly developed a reputation of an all-hustle, defensive stalwart and this past week, signed a three-year contract with RNK Split, one of Croatia’s more glamorous clubs.

After Chung’s quest for Croatian citizenship was publicized back home, critics accused him of merely trying to switch allegiance in an effort to dodge South Korea’s compulsory two-year military service, which Chung would have to complete before turning 30. But Chung insists that he would willingly give up the chance to represent his newly-adopted country if he could earn a call-up to the Korean national team in the near future.

“I have no intention of avoiding the military service,” Chung said in the recent Ilgan Sports interview. “I would have no reason to become Croatian if the Korean national team ever selects me. But in Croatia, people think it should be a no-brainer for me to accept the offer and take the citizenship.”

Whether Chung deserves Korean national team’s selection is still debatable. Korea already possesses a plethora of talented leftbacks, namely Kim Jin-su, Park Joo-ho and Yun Suk-young. Kim and Park play professionally for Hoffenheim and Mainz, respectively, in German Bundesliga, which is touted as one of the world’s best leagues. Both athletes also played a prominent role in leading Korea to a gold medal at the Asian Games last year. In addition, Yun is an emerging leftback for the English Premier League’s Queens Park Rangers.

“It’s something I’ll have to think about over time,” Chung, who has never represented Korea beyond the youth national team level, said about becoming Croatian. “It’ll be a decision that could change my life. It’s definitely not an easy decision.”

Featured image courtesy of WITHnews

Reggie Ho 1

Ken Jeong Tells the Story of Notre Dame’s Asian ‘Rudy’

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim

Doctors usually don’t stray too far from their area of expertise–unless you’re Ken Jeong, of course. The physician-turned-actor and comedian knows a thing or two about switching careers, which is why he was seemingly the perfect director for the 30 for 30 short film on Reginald “Reggie” Ho, a pre-med student at the University of Notre Dame who was part of the acclaimed football team that won a national championship in 1988.

As far as inspiring stories go, Notre Dame already has one in Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, who played for the Fighting Irish in 1976 as a walk-on defensive end. Reggie Ho, who grew up in Hawaii, never dreamed of playing football in college until he decided that he needed a more well-rounded life as a pre-med student. That meant trying out for the university’s football team.

Reggie Ho 2Ho had an unorthodox way of doing things, but it worked. 

About 5-foot-5 tall and weighing 135 pounds, Ho, like Rudy, didn’t really fit the mold for a Division I (D-I) football player. But as the team’s primary kicker, Ho would play an important role in Notre Dame’s most recent undefeated season.

“He is the most unlikely football hero ever,” Jeong told Keith Olbermann last week, “and he is a doctor, a cardiologist—an electro-physiological cardiologist—85 times smarter than me, than I ever was as a doctor.”

“He’s a better guy, a better human being,” he continued. “Way more humble, way less loud and over the top. He’s just everything I’m not. I’m the anti-Ho, in many ways. I’m really here to meet my mirror-image twin, and he’s just been amazing, he’s so inspiring.”

However, “over-the-top” is exactly what Ho was good at–sending the pigskin up and through the uprights. During night practices in a parking lot, the student-athlete used his knowledge of physics and his own body to mathematically come up with the best way to kick the ball from any position.

Most notably, Ho successfully kicked 4 out of 4 field goals against powerhouse Michigan to give Notre Dame the victory. Ho didn’t receive any financial support from the school, but that didn’t deter him from either of his priorities that year. After team practices, Ho would go straight to the library to make finish his coursework.

Although he walked away from football after just one year and now lives comfortably with his family out of the spotlight, Ho hasn’t forgotten how to kick. Watching him step back onto the same field, get into position for a kick and do his signature finger wiggle is pretty dang cool. You can watch the 13-minute film at this link or below..

Featured photo courtesy of ESPN


5 Things to Know about Team Korea before the 2015 Asian Cup

by STEVE HAN | @steve_han

Last summer, fans threw a barrage of yeot candy at the Korean national soccer team players with a sign that read, “Korean soccer is dead!” when they returned home after failing to win a game at the World Cup for the first time in 16 years.

So much for pronouncing death. Only six months after the yeot-throwing incident, expectations for the Korean players ahead of the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia have been raised for the team to win a continental title for the first time in 55 years. Korea will play against Oman in its first match of the quadrennial tournament on Saturday, Jan. 10 at 4 p.m. PT.

The biggest question for South Korea is whether or not it can prove that its team has been reinvigorated by its newly-appointed German head coach, Uli Stielike, who replaced Hong Myung-bo after the World Cup.

Here are five things you might find interesting before the big tournament kicks off this weekend. You can view the full schedule of the month-long tournament here.

1. Son Heung-min has become the face of Korean soccer.

Son, who plays professionally for Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen, is arguably the most prolific goalscorer Korean soccer has seen outside of the legendary Cha Bum-keun from the 1980s. Still only 22, Son has played in Germany for seven years now, scoring over 10 goals in each of the past three seasons. He also speaks fluent German, which allows him to communicate freely with Stielike without an interpreter.

The trust Stielike has placed in Son is so profound that in light of South Korea’s top strikers’ injuries, the coach will likely opt for a strikerless formation to give Son more space in front of goal when he drifts from his usual left-winger position.

2. While Son is Korea’s most exciting player, Ki Sung-yueng may be the most important one.

A scorer up front, such as Son, could be a game-changer, but that’s only if the players behind him put in their best efforts to create winnable situations. The lynchpin of South Korea’s midfield is Ki Sung-yueng, who became one of English Premier League’s upper-echelon midfielders at Swansea City this season and earned the captain’s armband for his country just before the Asian Cup.

While the 25-year-old’s intricate passing has always been top notch, it’s his defensive intensity in midfield that has improved leaps and bounds this season. He is currently averaging 1.7 tackles and 2.5 interceptions per game for Swansea.

Ki’s most prized asset is his wide passing range, but he can also go for goals with thunderous long shots and can drop deep to play as an additional defender at the back.

3. The decline of former captain Koo Ja-cheol is a major concern.

Along with Son, Koo Ja-cheol is another South Korean star player based in Germany. However, the Asian Cup’s reigning scoring champion has been on a steady decline since he captained Korea’s under-23 national team to a dazzling bronze medal finish at the 2012 Summer Olympics.

The criticism has been that Koo as an attacking midfielder–a position that requires fast-thinking and well-timed passes–has formed a detrimental habit of holding on to the ball for too long before supplying it to his teammates. Koo’s pass completion rate this season at MSV Mainz of Germany is a disappointing 76.1%.

His struggle in Korea’s latest exhibition game against Saudi Arabia last week was so visible that Stielike stripped him of his captaincy, just three days before the start of the Asian Cup. Perhaps a more suitable position for Koo would be a striker, a role with the license to hold the ball for longer stretches and at a greater frequency.

4. Japan and Iran are Korea’s biggest obstacles en route to glory.

If South Korea lives up to the expectations and breezes through the group stages and the quarterfinals, it will most likely face one of its two fiercest rivals, Japan or Iran, in the semifinals. For decades, Koreans have won their fair share of battles against their hated rivals, but both countries have become something of a nemesis for the national team in recent years.

Korea has failed to beat Japan and Iran in its last four and three games with them, respectively. In addition, Korea’s last win against Iran was in 2011, and it hasn’t defeated Japan since 2010. That tide will have to turn for Korea to end its half-a-century-long trophy drought at the Asian Cup.

5. At last, the return of the “Chaminator” could put Korea over the top.

Cha Du-ri, nicknamed the “Chaminator” by the Korean media for his exhilarating physical prowess, has been a crowd favorite among Korean soccer fans throughout his 15-year career with the national team.

One of Korea’s most glaring shortcomings at last summer’s World Cup was its inability to get the lateral defenders to join the attack, as shockingly evidenced by left and right fullbacks Yun Suk-young and Lee Yong’s combined 0% cross completion rate. Cha Du-ri was omitted from the final roster for the World Cup in Brazil, where he was remembered as the broadcaster who famously cried on national television while apologizing to his teammates for “not being good enough to help them” after Korea lost 4-2 to Algeria.

The 34-year-old, who has since returned to the national team, announced that he will retire from international soccer at the end of the Asian Cup. For all his defensive frailties, Cha’s ability to push forward may give Korea an additional dimension it needs to finally win the Asian Cup, which would be a perfect ending to the veteran’s career.


Featured photo courtesy of GameMeca


Japan Soccer Coach Wants To “Take Asian Games Away From Korea On Their Own Turf”


South Korean under-23 men’s soccer team is vying for a gold medal at the Asian Games for the first time in 28 years, but it will have to overcome arch rival Japan in the quarterfinal match on Sunday to have a shot at achieving the ultimate goal in Incheon next week.

Host nation South Korea advanced to the quarterfinals after beating Hong Kong 3-0 on Thursday in the round of 16. Led by head coach Lee Kwang-jong, the team won all four matches in the tournament so far and has yet to concede a goal. But Japan will pose the biggest threat for the Korea, which hasn’t faced serious competition thus far as its opponents included minnows such as Laos and Malaysia.

“I wanted to play South Korea here,” Japan head coach Makoto Teguramori told Kyodo News. “It doesn’t get any better than this. I mean, imagine what it would be like if Japan took the tournament away from Korea on their own turf. I can sense how badly Korea want to win this competition … We’ve got to be prepared mentally. We cannot allow ourselves to get beaten mentally.”

Since 2002, teams are only allowed to include players younger than 23 for men’s soccer at the Asian Games. FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, levies the age cap on international tournaments sanctioned by organizations other than itself (including the Summer Olympic Games) as part of its plan to make the World Cup the most glamorous soccer event in the world. As a compromise, men’s soccer teams at both the Asian Games and the Olympics, both organized by the IOC, can have up to three players over 23.

Although the age cap is at 23, the entire Japanese roster consists of players aged 21 or younger as Teguramori wants the less heralded Asian Games as something of a dress rehearsal for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Japan also played at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China with its under-21 team, consisting of players who would still be young enough to satisfy the age limit at the Olympics in 2012, and still impressively managed to win the competition.

Unlike Japan, no player in South Korea’s roster is younger than 22. Additionally, head coach Lee further emphasized his “win now” mentality by even utilizing all three of his over-aged player slots with those who represented Korea’s senior national team at this past summer’s World Cup in Brazil. Taking the all-or-nothing approach at the expense of drawing a larger picture for the bigger tournament in the Olympics remains a hotly debated topic for Korean soccer fans.

However, such a decision for the Koreans is also the most suitable way to accommodate their most talented players from obtaining military exemption, which is granted to all of South Korea’s gold medalists at the Asian Games. Many believe that the country’s 21-month compulsory military service for all able-bodied male citizens is detrimental to the development of young athletes whose careers are generally short-lived compared to other professions.

Image courtesy of KPPA


Korean Soccer Prodigy Lee Seung-Woo Scores A Cracker, Calls Japan “Easily Beatable”


In February of last year, we blogged about South Korean soccer’s prodigy Lee Seung-woo as the Spanish media began tipping the teenager as the “second coming of Lionel Messi.” The comparison made sense at least from a geographical standpoint as Lee is also developing through the youth ranks of FC Barcelona, one of the biggest professional soccer clubs in the world, just as Messi did.

To say that Lee will replicate Messi’s success is still something of a pipe dream. Lee, 16, has shown enough promise at Barcelona to play for its under-18 team after the club advised him to bypass the under-16 team altogether, but Messi was already playing for Barcelona’s senior team by the time he was Lee’s age. The Argentine then went on to score over 350 goals and won 21 championship trophies.

But at the very least, Lee is on track to become Korean soccer’s brightest star after more than 18 months since KoreAm introduced him to our readers. Playing for South Korea’s under-16 national team this summer, Lee is in a class of his own as he’s leading his country at the 2014 Asian Under-16 Championships. The videos of his two goals at the tournament so far has gone viral among soccer fans around the world let alone Korea. British newspapers the Daily Mail and the Mirror posted the videos and dubbed him a “wonderkid.”

Lee’s game-winning goal versus Thailand, which sets Korea up against Japan in the quarterfinals, was perhaps the best showcase for his talent. Running at full speed towards the opposing goal, Lee flicked a pass from his teammate on his first touch and bunny hopped over two slide-tackling defenders in a split second before firing a shot past the goalkeeper to give Korea the lead just before the halftime mark.


Aside from the goal, Lee also won over the hearts of even more Korean fans during his post-game interview. When asked about the upcoming quarterfinals game against longstanding rival Japan in which the winning team would earn a berth at next year’s Under-17 World Cup, Lee smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said, “As long as we play our game, beating a team at the level of Japan will be easy.”

Screen Shot of Tiger Mascot

PIC OF THE DAY: SKorea’s Mascot Comically Feigns Injury During Friendly Against Uruguay


South Korea may have lost the international friendly match against Uruguay 1-0, but it had its shining moment when their tiger mascot, Baekho, dramatically feigned injury after a misplaced pass struck him.

South Korea's tiger mascot feigns injury

After the ball ricocheted into his face, Baekho pretended to collapse while clutching his face with his large paws. Not many spectators seemed fazed by the act, except maybe the one photographer nearby who looks back with a hint of concern.

While the simulation has been called shameful and accused of seeking sympathy from the referee, you have to admit, it’s pretty hilarious.

Photo via Metro UK


5 Things You Should Know About Uli Stielike, SKorea’s New Soccer Coach


When the Korea Football Association (KFA) unveiled Uli Stielike from Germany as head coach of South Korea’s national team for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the fans and media alike began asking the same question: “Who?!”

Here are five things you should know about the 59-year-old man who will lead South Korean soccer’s quest for the World Cup in 2018 after its massive failure in Brazil this past summer.

Stielike was easily one of the world’s best players in his generation.

A playmaking central defender, Stielike played for Borussia Monchengladbach–a German powerhouse in the 70s–from 1972 to 1977, winning three German league titles. He then moved to Europe’s winningest club of all-time, Real Madrid of Spain, where he won three Spanish league titles. The deep-lying playmaker, known for his high “soccer IQ,” was also the centerpiece of the German national team that won the 1980 European Championship. To this day, Stielike remains as one of very few players who’ve played in the finals of the World Cup, European Championship and European Cup (now known as the Champions League).

Unfortunately, Stielike has little to no competitive coaching experience.

He started his coaching career in 1989 as the head coach of the Swiss national team, but left two years later with no notable accomplishments. He then bounced around the second divisions of German and Spanish leagues before becoming an assistant coach for the German national team from 1998 to 2000, a period known as the “dark age” for German soccer. Between 2001 to 2006, he coached Germany’s youth national teams of various age groups. Since then, he coached briefly in Switzerland before working with two different professional teams in Qatar over three years. He has been out of coaching since 2012. Stielike doesn’t possess any notable winning pedigree as a coach and has no experience in coaching a team in a competitive environment, such as the World Cup. That’s a concern for Korea, as its ultimate goal is to redeem itself four years later from this past summer’s disastrous World Cup campaign.

“Stielike’s only coaching experience was in Qatar over the last six years,” said Hyunmin Kim, Goal.com Korea‘s German soccer columnist. “He has been away from European soccer for a long time, so it’s hard to determine how well he has kept up with the rapid pace of modern soccer’s development in recent years.”

5514Uli Stielike playing for Germany

But Stielike has firsthand experience in revamping and developing Germany’s modern national team program, which today is considered as the best in the world.

German soccer’s rise over the last decade began when the German Football Association (DFB) decided to plow through its youth development model for all ages to re-brand German soccer’s image. Until then, the Germans were notorious for their rigid, physical style of play, which evidently hit a dead end when the national team crashed out of the first round at the 2000 European Championships. Stielike was hired to oversee youngsters who could potentially represent Germany in the future. His job over the next six years entailed coaching Germany’s under-19, under-20 and under-21 national teams. Some players who played under Stielike’s guidance during his six year stint include Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski, all of whom were part of Germany’s World Cup winning side in Brazil this year.

“Stielike took over Germany’s youth teams while the national team was struggling,” said Goal.com’s Kim, who lived in Germany during the early and mid-2000s and followed Stielike’s teams. “He served as the coach who bridged the gap between a struggling team and talented young players, like Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Mertesacker and Podolski. Those are the players that opened the floodgate and started Germany’s golden generation.”

Stielike had his chance to coach at the World Cup in 2010, but his dreams were shattered when his son abruptly died two years before the tournament.

The closest Stielike came to coaching a national team at the World Cup came in 2006 when he became the head coach of Ivory Coast, a juggernaut of a team from Africa led by Didier Drogba, who was one of the best forwards in the world at the time. Stielike may have dreamed of leading the team of talented young players to the 2010 World Cup, but sadly, he left the team in January 2008 when his son, Michael, became ill with a respiratory disease and died a month later. Stielike returned to Ivory Coast in March, but he soon left the team after his contract wasn’t renewed.

It was Stielike’s willingness to commit to the growth of South Korean soccer at all levels that convinced the KFA to hire him.

Many qualified coaches around the league expressed their interest in coaching the Korean national team, but the challenge for the KFA was to find a coach who’s committed to helping Korean soccer grow at all levels, not exclusive to producing results at the World Cup four years later. Bert van Marwijk, a renowned Dutch coach, was in pole position to land the job last month, but the deal fell through when he demanded a two-year contract instead of four and that he maintains his residence in Holland throughout the term. On the other hand, Stielike promised to re-locate to Korea with his wife. He also agreed to expand his role beyond coaching the national team and lead seminars for coaches around the country and hold clinics for young soccer players over the next four years.