Tag Archives: Soccer

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3 Standout Players For Korean Soccer Team After Head Coach Stielike’s Debut

by STEVE HAN

Uli Stielike, head coach of the South Korean men’s national soccer team, made his debut in a pair of friendly matches over the last four days. Stielike’s Korea got off to a bright start with a dominant 2-0 win over Paraguay last Friday, but was humbled by World Cup quarterfinalist Costa Rica on Tuesday after losing 3-1.

It’s still too early to judge, however. The purpose of friendlies is to identify problems rather than proposing solutions. Also, several players stood out in the last two games and gave their German coach a platform to build a stronger team with the Asian Cup coming up in three months. Here are three Korean players to look out for as Stielike made his coaching debut.

Nam Tae-hee. I interviewed Nam, who now plays professionally in Qatar, while he was still playing in France in February of 2011. Nam told me at the time that he feels more comfortable playing in his natural position in the middle, but he has since been played out of position on the right wing for the last three years for Korea. Stielike, who was Nam’s next-door neighbor from 2012 to earlier this year in Qatar, started the midfielder in his natural position in both matches. The result? Nam scored to extend Korea’s lead in its 2-0 over Paraguay and played a key role with a cheeky dummy during the setup to his only team’s goal against Costa Rica. The challenge now for Nam is to sustain the same level of play when Korea’s regular starting midfielder Koo Ja-cheol returns from injury.

Lee Chung-yong. A key player for Korea since the late 2000s, Lee’s struggle at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil this summer was seen as one of the biggest reasons for Korea’s early exit. Under Stielike, however, Lee revived his signature weaving runs through the opposing defense and telling passes to create goalscoring opportunities for his teammates. The 26-year-old is no longer the explosive dribbler after recovering from a double fracture in his right leg in 2012. But he is showing maturity in his play by contributing on defense as well as getting involved in Korea’s attacking build up by staying tucked into the central areas of the midfield. He may not be the risk-taking speedster down the wings he once was, but he now seems more mature and consolidated in his play with his all-around game.

Kim Seung-gyu. During the 2014 World Cup, we saw how exceptional goalkeeping could be the difference-maker. Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas, for example, was one of his team’s best players as it advanced to the quarterfinals, and Manuel Neuer of eventual champion Germany redefined the role of a goalkeeper by playing as an auxiliary defender when his back line positioned itself high up the field. Kim, Korea’s 24-year-old shot stopper who is coming off an excellent performance at the Asian Games, which Korea won the gold medal for the first time since 1986, has displayed his quickness and reaction skills to show that he may be the quality starting goalkeeper this team has lacked since former captain Lee Woon-jae retired.

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SKorea Beats NKorea With Last Kick and Claims Asian Games Gold Medal

by STEVE HAN

South Korean under-23 men’s soccer team scored a dramatic last-minute goal in the gold medal game of the Asian Games’ soccer tournament for a 1-0 win over North Korea, marking the craziest finish to a final of the quadrennial event that has been held since 1951.

The two Koreas remained scoreless in the 90-minute regulation and in the 30 minutes of extra time. On a corner kick during the added one-minute time before the potential penalty shoot-out, rightback Rim Chang-woo blasted a strong shot past several opposing players after forward Lee Yong-jae’s shot was blocked by an arm of Ri Yong-jik, one of North Korea’s many defenders who swarmed their goal to desperately stop what was bound to be the last kick of the game.

North Korea’s head coach Yun Jong-su and his coaching staff were livid as they argued to the referee that South Korea’s goal should be disallowed since Ri’s hand ball offense came before Rim’s game-winning shot and that a penalty kick must be given instead. However, referee Abdullah Dor Mohammad Balideh explained that he simply used the advantage clause, a unique rule in soccer which allows the referee to not to call an obvious foul if stopping the play causes greater harm to the team that would have been fouled.

After the game, South Korea’s head coach Lee Gwang-jong credited his players, whose compulsory two-year military service is now exempted with the win, for South Korea’s first Asian Games’ gold medal in men’s soccer in 28 years.

“We played a really fun game against North Korea,” Lee said. “The hard work for our first gold medal in 28 years was all done by the players. They really played hard for it.”

Yun, who led North Korea to its first Asian Games final in men’s soccer since 1978, praised his players for playing through fatigue for two games in just three days, both of which went to extra time. However, he contended that the loss is unjust due to “questionable” refereeing.

“I thank my players,” Yun said. “But I said this even before the game. In our previous game versus Iraq, one of our key players was sent off [and became ineligible to play in the final]. Today, the linesman raised the flag [just before South Korea's goal] and confused our players. Refereeing has to be fair. It shouldn’t accommodate the home team. I ask you reporters whether today’s refereeing was fair.”

Going into the tournament, host team South Korea’s 20-man roster was considered as one of the weakest group of players it has fielded at the Asian Games. Son Heung-min, South Korean soccer’s star forward, was forced to pull out of the team after his German club Bayer Leverkusen insisted that it cannot afford to lose the 22-year-old for three weeks during the German Bundesliga season.

Yun Il-lok, one of the brightest young prospects in Korea’s domestic K-League, was expected to fill the void for Son, but he was also ruled out of the tournament after just two games with a torn knee ligament. Another star forward Kim Shin-wook was called up as one of the three overage players before he picked up an injury of his own in the second game and remained sidelined throughout the tournament until the last 12 minutes of the gold medal game.

Despite the absence of its key offensive players, South Korea clawed its way to winning the gold medal by playing stingy defense that didn’t concede a single goal in all seven of the team’s games.

But the real gem of the tournament for South Korea may just be the goalscorer Rim, whose menacing runs up and down the right wing gave the team’s lethargic offense a much needed spark. The 22-year-old lateral defender, who is currently playing in Korea’s second division team Daejon Citizen, opened the scoring for South Korea in this tournament by heading home the go-ahead goal in the first game against Malaysia and against North Korea. He notched the last goal that gave him and his team the gold medal.

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SKorea And NKorea To Square Off In Asian Games Soccer Final

by STEVE HAN

South Korea edged out its rival Japan and weathered the storm against dark horse Thailand, reaching the men’s soccer finals at the Asian Games for the first time in 28 years.

Awaiting the South Koreans in the finals is their arch-rival: North Korea.

The two Koreas defeated Thailand and Iraq, respectively, to reach the finals for the first time in decades. Just hours after North Korea’s dramatic 1-0 win over Iraq in overtime, South Korea cruised to a comfortable 2-0 victory against Thailand to set up the “all Korea final,” which will take place at Incheon’s Munhak Stadium on Thursday.

The North Korean soccer team has served two devastating losses to South Korea in recent weeks. Its under-16 boys came from behind to beat South Korea 2-1 in the final match of the 2014 Under-16 Asian Championships. On Monday, its women’s national team also eliminated South Korea in the semifinals of the Asian Games.

South Korea is desperately relying on the recovery of its injured players for the upcoming 2014 Asian Games soccer final. The 6-foot-5 forward Kim Shin-wook sprained his ankle in the second game of the tournament and missed four straight games since then. Leftback Kim Jin-su, who plays professionally for Hoffenheim of Germany, also left the semifinal game in the second half, experiencing discomfort in his left.

Meanwhile, the challenge for North Korea is regaining fitness after the extra 30 minutes of overtime they faced in the semifinal against Iraq in just two days. Known for their tireless work ethic and speed on the attack, North Korea’s key player is forward Pak Kwang-ryong, who plays professionally for Swiss soccer’s powerhouse FC Basel.

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

by STEVE HAN

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

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Lee Seung-Woo Held By NKorea, But Still Wins Tournament MVP And Scoring Title

by STEVE HAN

There wasn’t much South Korean soccer prodigy Lee Seung-woo could’ve done. Three or more North Korean defenders surrounded the 16-year-old forward just about every time he got near the ball. Outnumbered upfront, he was kicked, pushed and harassed as North Korea scraped its way to an upset by beating South Korea 2-1 in the 2014 Asian Under-16 Championship final.

Despite the loss, South Korea still advances to next year’s FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Chile after its runners-up finish. Lee, who plays his club soccer at Spain’s renowned FC Barcelona, finished the tournament with both the Most Valuable Player and top scorer honors with five goals and four assists in five games.

“The important thing was to win,” said Lee, who joined Barcelona’s youth academy in 2011 after impressing its scouts at an international tournament in South Africa. “We lost, so I’m not happy about the MVP or the top scorer award. I was only able to play well because of the teachings from our coach and help from my teammates. I’m still young and have a lot to learn.”

Lee added, “Our next goal is to win the Under-17 World Cup next year. We have the ability to do it. We’ll do everything to win.”

South Korea had the lead at halftime after Choi Jae-young headed home Lee Sang-heon’s corner kick in the 33rd minute. Lee, spearheading South Korea’s attack, fought his way through traffic and created scoring chances on two occasions in the first half, but couldn’t beat North Korea’s goalkeeper Ri Chol-song. In the 15th minute, he dribbled past the North Korean defense from the left wing, but his shot was stopped by Ri. About three minutes later, he made a weaving run into the right side of the penalty area and drilled a strong shot that went straight to the shot stopper.

North Korea tied the game just four minutes into the second half when Han Kwang-song broke free of South Korea’s inattentive defending on a long ball into the box and scored an easy tap in. After 14 minutes, North Korea completed its comeback as Choe Song-hyok launched a strong shot into the top left corner near the right side of the box after South Korean wing-back Park Myeong-soo failed to clear the ball.

Before Choe’s game-winning goal for North Korea, Lee had a chance to put South Korea back on top as he made his trademark solo run into the attacking half and had only the goalkeeper to beat before Kim Wi-song grabbed him by the shoulder and brought him down. Lee pleaded to the referee for a red card, but the North Korean defender escaped with a yellow card.

The Asian U-16 Championships, which rarely gets much attention in South Korea, had become immensely popular this time around because of Lee’s impressive performances. Until the tournament, South Korean soccer fans had to settle for YouTube videos to see Lee displaying flashes of brilliance for Barcelona, but the teenager achieved something of a stardom by not only scoring goals, but by showcasing his ability to single-handedly dominate games with individual skills and an edgy demeanor.

When asked about what he thought of his nickname “Korean Lionel Messi” after the game, Lee answered, “It’s not up to me to determine if I play like Messi. To be called the ‘Little Messi’ or the ‘Korean Messi’ is an honor. But personally, I want to be the very first Lee Seung-woo.”

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Lee Seung-Woo Scores, Dances, Gets Mad And Then Dishes 4 Assists

by STEVE HAN

South Korean soccer’s whiz kid Lee Seung-woo did it again. The 16-year-old scored and dished out four assists, giving his country an emphatic 7-1 win over Syria in the semifinal of the 2014 Asian Under-16 Championships on Wednesday. To add to the drama, next up for South Korea is North Korea in the final. The two Koreas will battle for the continental championship.

Against Syria, South Korea’s head coach Choi Jin-cheul played Lee, who scored four goals in three games going into the semifinal, as the team’s playmaker after using him as a primary goalscorer in the previous games. His decision was presumably based on the probability that the Syrians could focus on defending Lee which Japan did moderately well for much of the first half in the quarterfinal game. Lee, who plays for worldly renowned FC Barcelona’s youth team in Spain, had already become something of a star in this tournament with his sensational goals and Cristiano Ronaldo-esque swagger.

Choi’s tactical change sparked Korea’s offense as Lee dropped into midfield from his lone forward position and played telling passes to his teammates. Jang Gyeol-hee, another one of Korea’s Barcelona-based forwards, scored the go-ahead goal in the fifth minute of the game. Then, just before the halftime whistle, Lee converted a penalty kick and extended Korea’s lead, which he celebrated with a bizarre dance (see below video at around 0:45).

See the rest of the above video for Lee’s four assists, which displays his passing skills in and around the final third of the field.

But perhaps the moment that best captured the teenager’s edgy, competitive personality was when he missed a clear scoring opportunity at the start of the second half. Frustrated by his miss, Lee kicked the goal post, snatched the opposing goalkeeper’s towel from the net and tossed it into the ground out of anger.

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The final versus North Korea will be Lee’s last game for South Korea before returning to Barcelona. He will represent Korea again next summer at the 2015 FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Chile.

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After Calling Japan “Easy,” Korean Soccer’s Whiz Kid Keeps His Word

by STEVE HAN

Days before the quarterfinal game against Japan, South Korean soccer’s 16-year-old prodigy Lee Seung-woo said that the rival team is “easily beatable” because he said he felt that “a team at the level of Japan” couldn’t be all that difficult to topple.

In the pivotal game in which a berth in next year’s FIFA Under-17 World Cup was at stake, Lee kept his word by lifting Korea’s under-16 national team past Japan with a 2-0 win. The stylish teenager, who scored both goals for Korea, demolished Japan’s defense with his individual skills and no shortage of swagger. After the game, even Lee’s opponents admitted that he was simply unplayable.

“It felt like we were outnumbered [when Lee had the ball],” said Tomiyasu Takehiro, Japan’s defender who was tasked with marking Lee during the game. “The only way to stop him was to commit the worst fouls possible. Our defense just couldn’t react.”

Japan began the game by playing its traditional short passing, possession soccer which kept Lee quietly isolated for much of the first half. But in the 42nd minute, Lee played a cheeky give-and-go pass with Kim Jung-min before scoring easily to give Korea the lead.

But it was Lee’s second goal of the game that showed just why he is touted by fans and media alike as Korea’s brightest ever prospect and perhaps also why the Spanish giants FC Barcelona signed the youngster three years ago when he was just 13 years old.

Lee collected the ball deep in South Korea’s defensive half, but in a matter of seconds, he left five Japanese defenders in dust and even dribbled past the goalkeeper to score on an open net at the other end of the field.

“Our tactic was to defend and then attack because we have a genius player in Lee Seung-woo,” Korean head coach Choi Jin-cheul said, according to Asian Football Confederation’s official website. “When he plays and trains all the other players look at him and follow him so he enhances our playing style as he is good for the other players.”

Since 2011, Lee has been dazzling in the youth ranks of Barcelona, Spain’s iconic professional soccer team. Over the years, Barcelona has produced some of the world’s best players, including Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, through its renowned youth academy, famously named La Masia, which literally translates to “farmhouse” in Spanish. Barcelona signed Lee after spotting him in an international youth tournament in South Africa in 2010.

In Europe, it is the professional sports teams that progressively develop young athletes by operating youth teams for different age groups, unlike in the U.S., where student-athletes represent their respective academic institutions until they’re old and talented enough to play professionally. Although the European system is comparable to Major League Baseball’s farm system in the U.S., the age group for youth soccer teams in Europe start from children as young as 4 or 5 years old.

At Barcelona’s youth academy at which Lee is considered as one of the best up-and-coming talents, only a few players who graduate the development program eventually make its senior team. But although some graduates may not make the cut at the senior level for Barcelona, many who show enough talent to graduate its academy have gone on to other top teams in Europe to establish respectable careers. Spanish midfielder Mikel Arteta couldn’t find a place in Barcelona’s senior team after graduating from La Masia in 2001, but he now plays for Arsenal, one of the best teams in Europe and England.

Photo courtesy of Asian Football Confederation

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

by STEVE HAN

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.

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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.”