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(Yonhap Feature) Politicking suspected in firing of coach Cho Kwang-rae

By John Duerden
Contributing writer
SEOUL, Dec. 16 (Yonhap) - Former national football coach Cho Kwang-rae was under the spotlight when news broke that the Korea Football Association (KFA) abruptly fired him last week. It was not long, however, before the spotlight moved to the association and its reasons for dismissing Cho.

   The KFA said Cho, who had been in the job just 17 months, was dismissed because of concerns that he would not be able to lead the team to the 2014 World Cup following a 2-1 defeat in November against Lebanon, a team then ranked 146 in FIFA's rankings, in the penultimate round of qualification.

   South Korea still tops Group B, but the loss means that it must at least tie Kuwait in the Feb. 29 game to secure its position in the final phase.

   Politics have been ingrained in the workings of the association, and the main criticism is that Cho was the victim of it. Chung Mong-joon, who transformed from a Hyundai tycoon into a legislator, stepped down after 16 years in 2009 to become honorary president. He is still regarded as having and exerting considerable influence on the association and his successor Cho Chung-yun.

Cho Kwang-rae, former national football team coach, at a press conference on Dec. 9, a day after he was fired (Yonhap file photo)

Cho defeated Heo Seung-pyo, head of the Korean Football Research Center, in the election to become president in 2009, and the two are set to compete once again early in 2013. Heo has been an outspoken critic of those at the top of the KFA. With former coach Cho known to be his ally, some have attributed the dismissal as an attempt to limit the influence of Heo and his followers.

   Baek Jung-hyun, head of sports production at state-funded national broadcaster KBS, believes Cho Kwang-rae was always vulnerable because of the politics within the KFA.

   "Because of the different camps in the KFA, he was destined to be fired more easily than past coaches. But Cho knew this when he took the job last year," Baek said. "It meant that he had to prove himself only by results and he constantly said that the national team was his responsibility alone. Unfortunately, the results and performances against Japan (Korea lost 3-0 to biggest rival Japan in an August friendly) and Lebanon were not good enough although for people outside the KFA it can look sudden and unreasonable."

   Some suspect pressure by broadcasters, including the KBS, and sponsors who feared exponential profit loss should South Korea fail to advance to the finals and wanted the association to oust the coach. KBS was first to break the story as an exclusive, two days prior to the scheduled announcement, raising suspicions that the broadcaster and the association may have been in discussions about the coach.

   Baek has denied such rumors.

   "Cho did not participate in big recent events such as the K-League annual award ceremony and the opening of Futsal Stadium in Paju. As far as I know, KBS football reporters sensed that there was something going on and got some information from KFA headquarters and followed the story for two weeks."

   The KFA has refuted all allegations of politicking, saying it solely focused on qualifying for an eighth successive World Cup.

   "It is true that Cho was not so popular among some people at the KFA," said a senior association official on condition of anonymity. "But there were many worries about the possibility of not qualifying for the World Cup. The result in Lebanon meant that a decision had to be taken soon. If results had been better then, Cho would still be the coach."

   The official pointed out that after the game against Kuwait on Feb. 29, the next round of qualification is scheduled to start on June 3 with eight matches to take place over the subsequent 12 months. "There will not be enough time after the Kuwait game for a new coach to prepare for the final round, since the domestic K-league season begins immediately around that time, and there will be few opportunities for the new coach to spend time with his players. That was a factor. It was felt that if a decision had to be made, sooner was better than later."

   Seo Hyung-wook, a commentator at another broadcaster MBC and the chief soccer columnist for leading portal site Naver, agrees that politics did not play a big part in the decision.

   "We should look at the results and method of communication in the organization," said Seo.

   Although debate continues over whether firing Cho was the right thing to do, most observers agree that the situation was poorly handled by the KFA.

   Cho said the association's technical committee, which reserves the right to hire or fire national team coaches, did not hold a meeting to discuss his status. According to Cho, it was technical committee head Hwangbo Kwan who delivered the bad news, without going through the committee.

Soccer fans protest outside the Korea Football Association office in Seoul on Dec. 9, criticizing the dismissal of national team coach Cho Kwang-rae. (Yonhap file photo)

Seo says the procedure was "a big mistake."

   "The KFA has been organized and run more like a Mafia family than a football association," Seo said. "It is only the boss who can make big decisions like hiring and firing national team managers.

   "Of course, all organizations don't need to be completely wide open, but the KFA should improve in that aspect," Seo added. "The KFA benefits from the love that the Korean people have for the national team and that has brought it money, popularity, and value but it needs to be more open and abide by its own regulations."

   "It is true that it was handled badly," said the KFA official. "That is something that needs to be solved for the future so we don't repeat the same mistake. With a better process we could then discuss the football aspect of the situation more easily. Instead, there are lots of other issues being talked about, but the most important issue for us was the World Cup."

   In the meantime, the search is on for the next coach. The technical committee is dropping hints that it may opt for a foreign coach.

   According to Afshin Ghotbi, former member of Korea's coaching staff whose name was circulating as a potential candidate, a foreign coach may be a good thing.

   "Korean football has taken giant steps in the last decade with bringing foreign coaches in both K-League and national team level," said Ghotbi. "For Korean football to continue its development, K-League can benefit from having both domestic and foreign coaches. Various football styles will only make for a more exciting league."

   A foreigner may also be free from politics on and off the field.