The Generational Evolution of Korean Footballers in Europe

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lee seung woo
Lee Seung-woo in his Barcelona U-19 debut

FC Barcelona’s wonderkid is still confused. When the 18-year-old South Korean missed a scoring chance in an under-18 friendly match against Belgium last year, he expressed his frustration by kicking an advertising board. Lee had no idea that his impulsive reaction was about to spark a public debate about his character—and whether or not if he has what those back home call the “suitable personality” to play the “Korean way.”

“I was really surprised,” Lee told TV network JTBC recently, as he recalled the controversy from May. “It’s not like I hit a person, but everything in the media was about my kick to the advert. But then if I were to hide my edgy side, wouldn’t journalists get bored?”

Lee’s outward display of expressive attitude is a rare trait in Korea, a country that’s deeply woven into the social fabric of conforming to a hierarchy. Since the 2014 U-16 Asian Championship, where Lee became a star in Korea with an electric performance, he has never shied away from making bold statements. He has called Japan a “light” opponent, said he aims to win the Ballon d’Or one day and also put himself in the list of world’s top three players in his age group.

Most Koreans don’t know what they should make of Lee’s outlandishness, but equally confused is the boy himself who’s trying to bridge the gap between himself and the country that he left in 2011 when Barcelona came calling to lure the then 13-year-old to join their worldly renowned youth academy.

Ultimately, the onus will fall on Lee as Korea’s willingness to accept him as one of their own will eventually hinge on how he responds to the tall order of proving that he is as good as he is rated in Barcelona. Lee took another step in his journey last weekend when he debuted for Barcelona’s under-19 Juvenil A side.

But how Lee’s career unfolds will be significant because he is at the core of an evolving trend in Korean football. Although Lee’s career is still in infancy as he continues developing in Barcelona, his early emergence to stardom in Korea marks the beginning of a new generation—players who have left the country during their early teens to join youth academies of European clubs. Lee and his Barcelona clubmates Paik Seung-ho and Jang Gyeol-hee are at the forefront of this new generation, followed by Valencia’s highly-rated, 14-year-old whiz kid Lee Kang-in and several other youngsters, most of whose relocation to Spain and Germany was engineered by the Korea Football Association.

In essence, Lee and his peers are the leaders of the third generation of Korean footballers in Europe. Since the early 2000s, Korea relied heavily on players based in Europe as their core group to lead the national team. Park Ji-sung and Lee Young-pyo, the former PSV Eindhoven duo who won several titles with the Dutch club before parting ways to enjoy success at Manchester United and Tottenham, triggered the first wave of such a movement. The torch was then passed to the younger generation of players led by Ki Sung-yueng and Lee Chung-yong, both of whom developed under the tutelage of Park Ji-sung and Lee Young-pyo in the late 2000s before they followed their predecessors to establish themselves in the Premier League. The kids in Barcelona are expected to become the fulcrum of the next chosen ones.


national team at 2015 Asian Cup (Credit: Getty)

Learning why Korea chose to rely on players based in Europe requires an understanding of the K League’s impact on national team football. When the K League was founded as Asia’s first professional football league in 1983, the hope was that it plays a vital role in providing a quality-assured talent pipeline to make the country’s national team the best side in Asia. That mission was more or less accomplished as South Korea earned their first qualification to the World Cup in 1986 for the first time since 1954. From then on, they have not missed a single World Cup.

But Korea soon hit a wall. At four World Cups held between 1986 and 1998, their squads consisted mostly of K League players and no more than one or two players based outside of the country. The team dominated Asian qualifying with relative ease, only to falter badly at the World Cup as they failed to win a single match before going three-and-out each time. A few players with European experience were sprinkled across Korea’s squads at those tournaments—the legendary Cha Bum-kun who won two UEFA Cup titles during his stint in Germany in 1986, three-time Asian Footballer of the Year Kim Joo-sung who played for VfL Bochum in 1994 and NAC Breda’s Noh Jung-yoon and Seo Jung-won of Strasbourg in 1998—but merely having one or two of those individuals wasn’t enough to lift the team’s core group that was built primarily around inexperienced domestic players.

Highly alarmed by the perpetuating status quo, the Korea Football Association became desperate to tweak the national team setup. As Korea was set to co-host the 2002 World Cup with Japan, the pressure from the public on the KFA to build a national team that can outperform their rival neighbors, whose national team featured key players from the sides that were 1999 U-20 World Cup runners-up, 2000 Asian Cup champions and 2001 Confederations Cup runners-up, intensified greatly. To be competitive against the world’s best, Korea’s best footballers needed to break out of their comfort zone.

By that time, Korea had just one of their big-name stars in Europe—Ahn Jung-hwan at Perugia in the Italian Serie A. But starting in 2000, the KFA began making an organized effort to work with European agents who brokered deals that took Korean players abroad. Soon, Seol Ki-hyeon joined Royal Antwerp in Belgium and Sim Jae-won signed with Germany’s Eintracht Frankfurt. When the KFA appointed Guus Hiddink as the new national team manager in the same year, the Dutchman signed his lucrative contract under the condition that he must sign a Korean player if his next post were to be at a European club.

Two years later, the floodgates were finally opened after Korea won a place on the map of world football with a miraculous run to the semifinals at the World Cup. Hiddink kept his promise and took Park Ji-sung and Lee Young-pyo to PSV Eindhoven, giving birth to the first generation of Korean footballers in Europe. Impressed with Korea’s World Cup performance, European clubs started scouting for talents in the K League, which launched the exodus of Korea’s 2002 World Cup heroes to stronger European leagues. Song Chong-gug and Kim Nam-il headed to the Dutch Eredivisie, while Lee Chun-soo joined Real Sociedad in Spain. Bayer Leverkusen signed Cha Du-ri and Lee Eul-yong moved to Turkish outfit Trabzonspor. Most of these players teamed up once again in 2006 in Germany where Korea won a World Cup match for the first time on a foreign soil against Togo.

Park Ji-Sung

Former South Korea head coach Guus Hiddink kept his promise by taking Park Ji-Sung to Europe (Credit: Getty)

As Park Ji-sung conquered England and Europe with Manchester United, even the likes of Kim Do-heon, Lee Dong-gook and Cho Won-hee—standouts in the K League, but lesser known outside of Asia—were signed by clubs in the Premier League. Cha Bum-kun achieved European success with Bundesliga clubs and Huh Jung-moo was respected at PSV Eindhoven in the 80s, but they were “aberrations.” Hwang Sun-hong in Germany’s lower divisions and Kim Joo-sung, Noh Jung-yoon, Seo Jung-won and Lee Sang-yoon featuring in different parts of Europe throughout the 90s were also cases of “exceptions.” But the post-2002, “first generation” Koreans in Europe became the starting point of a trend and paved the way to enable the elites of Korea national team and the K League—the domestically proven commodities—to achieve their ultimate dream of playing European football for years to come.

Then, a new wave of young players with an ability to play aesthetically-pleasing football was introduced as Korea began a new cycle to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. Korea’s prodigious forward Park Chu-young, who was a project in the works in 2006, was joined by FC Seoul teammates Ki Sung-yueng and Lee Chung-yong, teenagers who represented Korea at the 2007 U-20 World Cup (Park Joo-ho, who now plays at Borussia Dortmund, also played in this tournament). The trio quickly became starters for Korea before moving to Europe as soon as they entered their early 20s. When called up to the national team, they were under the stewardship of veterans in their 30s with a wealth of European experience, namely Park Ji-sung, Lee Young-pyo, Cha Du-ri, Kim Nam-il, Lee Dong-gook and Ahn Jung-hwan, to provide them with protection and guidance. Of the 23 players in Korea’s 23-man squad at the 2010 World Cup, where they advanced from the group stage away from home for the first time, six were playing club football in Europe while five others had European experience.

At the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, Park Chu-young, Ki Sung-yueng and another emerging star midfielder Koo Ja-cheol from FC Augsburg were among the leaders of the Korean side that won the bronze medal. The accomplishments at the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Olympic Games also coincided with the period in which the KFA’s investment to bring up talented young players through the youth ranks of European clubs started paying big dividends. Between 2002 and 2009, the KFA selected 19 top-of-the-line players in the country’s under-15 middle school league to help them join youth academies of various clubs in France, England and Germany. Not too long after the turn of the decade, the likes of Son Heung-min, Nam Tae-hee, Ji Dong-won and Lee Yong-jae have come through that program and were playing first team football at Hamburg, Valenciennes, Sunderland and Nantes.


Europe-based stars led South Korea to win the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic Games after defeating arch-rival Japan (Credit: Getty)

By the time of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the tide was turned completely. From the 1986 World Cup squad that had everyone except Cha Bum-kun playing within Korea, only six Korean players at the 2014 tournament were based in their own country while 17 were playing abroad. Of those 17, eight have never even played in Korea beyond the under-18 level. That being said, Korea’s moderate success in international football leading up to 2014 came to a screeching halt in Brazil as the team failed to win a match at the World Cup for the first time in 16 years.

But all signs still indicate that the KFA will continue to outsource players to Europe and hope that the K League catches up to speed with the rest of the world in the meantime. In fact, the KFA has lowered the age group of players it’s now targeting for their “play abroad” program to under-12. Lee Seung-woo, Jang Gyeol-hee and Paik Seung-ho at Barcelona and Lee Kang-in at Valencia are this upcoming generation’s founding members. As more children head to Europe, they will grow up with the hopes of becoming professional footballers in the world’s best leagues while they remain oblivious to the widening cultural gap between them and the country they call home.

For Korea, the risk of having to rely on teenagers in Europe to break through at their clubs, where competition is fierce, to supply the talent that’s needed for the national team to remain competitive is already a big one in and of itself. But even if that were to be a risk worth taking, the next challenge becomes how the European raised footballers will be received by people in their motherland.

Korea national team captain Ki Sung-yueng, who himself grew up in Australia, is cautiously optimistic.

“What’s problematic for me is that our players habitually accept errors during a match,” Ki told Naver Sports a year ago. “At times, you need someone who will yell, start arguments and use profanity to give everyone a wake-up call. That’s how we improve. Rejection to criticism only creates a limit. We need a cultural change within the team. Our younger friends in Spain will surely be different. Soon enough, we may be seeing one of our own players yelling in his teammate’s face over a bad pass.”