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The South Korean Poison Pill

South Korean head coach Hong Myung-boThe World Cup, an event that is truly international. A competition that takes years of planning and preparation, and is trying, to say the least, for all participating countries. It’s a chance for nations to show their unity and strength through sport. However, this time, it left a black mark on the world’s perception of Korea. Behaving truly like a child sometimes, Korea is prone to temper tantrums fit for the most annoying of prepubescent youngsters. As a Korean American, I often identify with my ethnic culture. Much of my identity has been derived from my experience as a U.S.-born Asian and never have I been happier of this fact (that I’m US-born) than this week. Let me explain.

korea-toffeesSouth Korea’s performance in the World Cup group stages was, for lack of a better word, uninspired. They dropped two of their group stage matches and achieved one draw, bad enough to leave them at the bottom of the group when all was said and done. A painful reality check to be sure, but one that Korea should in no way be discouraged by. Of the four teams from Asia that actually were able to qualify, Korea stood near the top of the rankings going into the tournament, second only to Iran. These teams were Australia, Japan, Iran and of course the R.o.K. This ranking actually turned out to be a relatively accurate indicator of the Asian contingent’s performance with Korea finishing at the top despite their poor showing (Iran and Japan had the same records as Korea, but were placed below them because of goal differentials in the rankings) . Incidentally, every Asian team that was in the tournament finished last in their group.

So you know now, all the facts of the case. Korea finishes on top of all its Asian competitors with the youngest team they’ve ever fielded and only five players that had World Cup experience, and performs as well as could be expected. Yet, the results that they saw in this, the most popular sports tournament in the world, were not enough to get their players any respect or kind words. The Korean men’s national team arrived in Korea after months of grueling competition and were greeted by having candy thrown at them (the candy was called yeot and in Korean culture, telling someone to eat yeot is synonymous with yelling “eat shit” or “go f*ck yourself”) and signs telling them that they were a disgrace. Way to demonstrate class R.o.K.

What makes this truly embarrassing is that Korea’s actions are weighed internationally in the media against the reactions of other countries, all of which had the chance to show their national spirit and their support for their respective national teams. One such comparison I’m forced to draw is the stark contrast between Korea’s actions and Japan’s, a country that has a long, if not gruesome history with the Korean peninsula. Did they cry about their losses? Probably, like so many passionate fans. Did they tell their players that they were shit on their return home? No, their players returned with no negative press. Hell, their fans even cleaned their sections after a draw by their own team!

Brfpmp6IUAASzDP (1)From my perspective, even though the US did get further than Korea did, the US Men’s National Team lost for the worst reasons. Every match left me and much of my peers asking, “When is the US men’s national team going to wake up?” Our one victory in the “Group of Death” came on the heels of a 86th minute goal and was against  what would prove to be the weakest team in our group, Ghana. Our loss to Belgium was littered with missed opportunities and over a dozen miscues. Yet, the press, the people and indeed, the country, have been singing the praises of the individual and team efforts shown throughout the World Cup. SideBar: the best story to come out of this has been the overwhelming support (and here) for Tim Howard, the American Keeper, who secured a record-breaking 16 saves in the Round of 16 match against World Cup dark horse, Belgium.

I want to bring another comparison to light, one that should put this all in perspective. One team, that had a terrible showing despite the pre-group-stage hype was England. England, ironically, ended their world cup run with the same record as South Korea despite being equipped with better players, a stronger pedigree and a national fervor second to none. Despite not having recorded a single win in their group stage performance, the players exited their last match to a standing ovation by their supporters. A standing ovation, one that Manager Roy Hodgson stated, that he and his team “did not merit.

South Korean players celebrate the equalising goalTo be perfectly honest, Korea, as a nation, has shown this week that they still have a long way to go. What player or coach would want to be involved with a program that receives no thanks and not even any respect when all’s said and done. The problem? It isn’t with the lack of quality players or the lack of a superstar coach as the masses of Korea nationals would have you believe. All we’d have to do is look at the results in 2002. Though much of the glory was bestowed on then coach Guus Hiddink, in my opinion, it wasn’t his coaching that made the biggest difference. What did? Was it the overwhelming number of world class players Korea had at the time? Clearly not. What was the secret? The support of the fans and a whole country rising up to cheer their squad to victory. It’s sad that Korea has lost sight of this.

The truly devastating effects of this type of crass, classless action won’t be visibly noticeable, but the stone has been cast and the ripples will be far-reaching. Children growing up in this atmosphere, Korea’s future stars, are experiencing this blame-game-witch-hunt first hand. How many of those children do you think will grow up with sour memories of the treatment of their team and its players? How many of those same kids will give up playing soccer to choose other paths, ones of less resistance? How will Korea’s actions in future international competitions be affected because of the stigma being created that gives “no second chances”? How many potential, multi-national players will Korea lose out on because they don’t want to play for a country that doesn’t give two shits about them? I don’t know, but I will say this, we won’t see Korea ever recapture their success of 2002, unless something changes. This isn’t about the team or the players because to be perfectly frank, Korea has always had the cards stacked against them in that department, but the people. The people in the stands. The people watching on screens. The people that greet their team after two years of grueling competition and just a few sour matches. Those people have to change.

BN-DL985_soccer_G_20140629232952There is a picture I want to share with you to close this out. Upon the South Korean National Team’s return to their native country, the same country that sang their praises two weeks before, and months before saw them as one of the top teams in the world, the team was greeted to this sign (shown to the left, thanks WSJ). The sign reads “Korean soccer is dead” then refers people to a net cafe located on Daum, a famous South Korean search engine provider, named “We lost because of you.” A poignant sign and yet, the blame is clearly misdirected. It isn’t the team that sweat and bled red and blue that is to blame, nor was it the coach whose own storied national team career led to his being named in the FIFA 100 as one of the 100 greatest soccer players of all time. If anyone is to blame here, it is the fans. If experience teaches us anything, it’s that giving people the option of winning or facing the proverbial stick isn’t a winning strategy. If it was, North Korea would have won several World Cups already. That being said, if the Korea Football Association decides today that they will look for a new manager, it will literally be the last nail in the coffin of a once promising program.

Alex S. Pak
A young professional with a passion for rhetoric. He was born and raised in Southern California where he attended high school and college. Alex focused his studies on the humanities and is a keen observer of the human condition. In is spare time, enjoys reading, watching movies, and partying like a rock star.
http://www.facebook.com/alex.s.pak

3 thoughts on “The South Korean Poison Pill

  1. Korea is not the only country that didn’t qualify for the semis. Even the defending champion got disqualified early.

    The players probably did all they can, but it wasn’t enough. Still, I will cheer for the team in their future games.

  2. I’ve been a Korea “watcher” for about two years. This appalling behavior does not surprise me at all. It’s unfortunate but not surprising. I think Korea is in the throws of a cultural meltdown. It’s as though it is stuck halfway between neo-Confucian Joseon dynasty social mores and the modern world. To an outsider this is fascinating and repellent at the same time. What I find so strange and often unnerving is the disconnect between their collective society and their inability to tolerate deviation or frailty within the collective. It reminds me of birds, pecking at the weak, pushing the less than perfect from the nest. Their capacity to forgive on the surface seems to be pretty much zero. A casual observer like myself sees much of this and can’t help but think that Koreans are shallow and petty. At the same time Koreans come off as being a nation of whiners. The concept of “han” that drives the need for their suffering as a people to be recognized seems diametrically opposed to the way they treat each other. They seem to lack the compassion for each other that they so crave from the rest of the outside world.

    Korea also is absolutely determined to be recognized for their achievements by the outside world as well. Yet their only real claim as a nation is how swiftly they were able to pull themselves out of poverty as though they didn’t have any help. The entire world knows that they owe much of their security and economic stability to the US presence on the peninsula. This isn’t to say that Koreans do not deserve credit for how hard they worked and what they have been able to do in such a short period of time. They also have another more subtle ability that I find very interesting and a bit endearing. They have been able to take things from the other nations they come into contact with and make them their own. This quality as a people is something I think westerners especially Americans can admire. It demonstrates a tenacity and a strong will to survive. Something Americans should also be able to recognize in ourselves.

    Having said all this I don’t want you or anyone else to think that I see the Korean people as bad or inferior to Americans. I have a special kind of affection for them because in many ways I find them to be a lot more like Americans than any other Asian nation. Even the conservatism that is so stifling and often impedes their progress as a nation is much like our own. I admire their tenacity, their work ethic and their ability to utilize everything they come into contact with to their advantage. They are survivors. That they are even here, still intact as a nation is a testament to that ability.

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