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(Yonhap Feature) S. Korea's pro football league opens door for high school players

2018/01/24 09:04

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By Joo Kyung-don

SEOUL, Jan. 24 (Yonhap) -- Football fans have seen many teenage sensations make early professional debuts and compete against adults.

To mention a few, players like Wayne Rooney of Everton and Jack Wilshere of Arsenal made their pro debuts at the age of 16. In Japan, Takefusa Kubo made headlines last year after he made his first appearance on FC Tokyo's first team at 15 years, 10 months and 30 days.

Although players as young as Kubo will not play in South Korea's top football league, from now on, the country will be able to see high school students on the pro stage.

The K League, the operator of the country's pro football competitions, decided on Jan. 15 to lower the age limit for pro contract signings. Now, K League clubs can offer pro contracts to players who are 17 or older.

For more than 10 years, South Korean fans were not able to see teenage debutants in the K League, as the league code, instituted in 2006, stipulated that only players at least 18 years old were eligible to become pros.

This photo, provided by the K League, shows players from Pohang Jecheol High School football team, which is also the under-18 side of South Korean pro club Pohang Steelers, celebrate after they beat Pungsaeng High School 2-0 to win the K League U-18 Championship in Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province, on Aug. 4, 2017. (Yonhap) This photo, provided by the K League, shows players from Pohang Jecheol High School football team, which is also the under-18 side of South Korean pro club Pohang Steelers, celebrate after they beat Pungsaeng High School 2-0 to win the K League U-18 Championship in Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province, on Aug. 4, 2017. (Yonhap)

Most South Koreans turn 18 the year of their high school graduation.

"Before 2006, we had no age limits on pro contract signings, so there was a need to make such guidelines," said Kim Jin-hyung, communications team leader at the K League. "Back then, we were pushing the clubs to have their own youth teams, and to boost their effort, we decided to set the age limit for pro contracts."

   Kim said there's a reason why the league decided to lower the age limit from 18 to 17 in the latest revision.

"The clubs told us that they can best judge prospects when they are 17," he said. "We have to see whether the age limit can be lowered in the future, but at least for now, we'll stick to 17."

   High school football players said they welcome the latest revision because they can now become professional players and make money early.

"It's meaningful because the pro league is giving us an opportunity," said Choi Won-chang, a 16-year-old defender at Incheon Daegun High School football team, which also serves as the under-18 side for K League Classic club Incheon United. "I've seen many young players in foreign countries making their pro debuts, so why not us?"

  

K League Deputy Commissioner Huh Jung-moo (L) hits with a gavel to start a board meeting at the pro football league's office in Seoul on Jan. 15, 2018. (Yonhap)  K League Deputy Commissioner Huh Jung-moo (L) hits with a gavel to start a board meeting at the pro football league's office in Seoul on Jan. 15, 2018. (Yonhap)

There were times when the K League had teenage debutants. In particular, between 2002 and 2006, when the league first decided not to use the draft system for rookie recruitments, football wunderkinds as young as middle school students were able to get pro contracts.

Lee Chung-yong, now with Crystal Palace in the English Premier League, was one minor who signed a pro contract during that time. Lee, born in 1988, joined FC Seoul in 2004 after he quit Dobong Middle School.

In 2002, Han Dong-won became the youngest pro debutant, at 16 years and 25 days, after he made a domestic cup appearance for Anyang LG Cheetahs, now FC Seoul.

However, with the age limit set in 2006 along with the revival of the draft system, such teenage sensations were no longer seen in South Korea. The draft system was abolished in 2015, but the age limit was still set at 18 until last week.

"If you see what's happening in football world today, the player's age doesn't matter," said Kim Tae-ryung, former Paris Saint German youth player who now works as a football analyst for local broadcasters KBS and SPOTV. "If a teenage player has enough talent and physique to compete at a high-level, he should play in the pro league."

  

This file photo, taken on May 26, 2007, shows then-FC Seoul player Lee Chung-yong (L) controlling the ball during a K League match against Seongnam Ilhwa at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul. (Yonhap) This file photo, taken on May 26, 2007, shows then-FC Seoul player Lee Chung-yong (L) controlling the ball during a K League match against Seongnam Ilhwa at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Pro clubs also welcome the decision to ease the age limit, since it will allow them to prevent their youth talents from getting "hijacked" by foreign clubs.

The most controversial case in that regard was the transfer of Hwang Hee-chan, who is now a star forward at Austrian outfit FC Red Bull Salzburg. Hwang was a youth product at Pohang Steelers when he was a student at Pohang Jecheol High School, the U-18 club of Pohang. But in late 2014, when he was about to finish high school, he signed a contract with Salzburg, a move that angered some Pohang fans.

In Hwang's case, Pohang couldn't claim ownership, or seek a transfer fee from Salzburg, even though the player was their youth product. Since he was not able sign a pro contact before age 18, Hwang was an amateur player then and was free to sign with any club.

"It lets you down and makes you feel betrayed when your long-time youth product signs a pro contract with another club," an official with a K League club said on condition of anonymity. "Most local clubs would understand the player's desire to play overseas, but at the same time, the clubs think they need to get compensated enough for their investments."

  

This photo, taken by the Associated Press on Nov. 23, 2017, shows FC Red Bull Salzburg's Hwang Hee-chan (R) and Vitoria SC's Fabio Sturgeon vying for the ball in a Europa League match in Salzburg, Austria. (Yonhap) This photo, taken by the Associated Press on Nov. 23, 2017, shows FC Red Bull Salzburg's Hwang Hee-chan (R) and Vitoria SC's Fabio Sturgeon vying for the ball in a Europa League match in Salzburg, Austria. (Yonhap)

Of course, there were also cases like Jeong Woo-yeong, a graduate of Incheon Daegun High School, who now plays for German giants Bayern Munich. Jeong, 18, signed a pro contract with Incheon before he joined Munich last year, so that the K League club could earn a transfer fee.

Ulsan Hyundai FC General Manager Kim Kwang-kook said such a rule change will allow the clubs to invest more in their youth programs. Ulsan is one of the K League clubs that have rarely had disputes in their youth talent transfers. The club recently sent four of their prospects to European clubs on loan.

"Lowering the age limit will make many clubs pay more attention to their youth systems, because the clubs can now secure their future talents in advance," he said. "At Ulsan, what we emphasize here is the relationship between the club and the player, as well as the player's family. We watch them from a young age and trust that the player can build his own future."

   Choi Jin-kyu, who was recently appointed new head coach of Gangneung Jeil High School, Gangwon FC's under-18 team, said the age limit revision will motivate young players who dream of pro contracts.

"Of course, I would recommend a 17-year-old player to the club for a pro contract if there's one with enormous talent," he said. "It doesn't matter whether our under-18 squad will be weakened without that player. For some of them, becoming a professional football player is what they've dreamed of."

  

This file photo, taken on June 3, 2017, shows a football match between Gangneung Jeil High School and Gangneung Jungang High School at Gangneung Stadium in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. (Yonhap) This file photo, taken on June 3, 2017, shows a football match between Gangneung Jeil High School and Gangneung Jungang High School at Gangneung Stadium in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. (Yonhap)

However, not all people in the football community welcomed the K League's decision to ease the age limit on pro debut.

Chung Jong-seon, chief of the Korea High School Football Association, said this revision only benefits schools that serve as youth clubs for pro teams. In South Korea, pro football clubs sign contracts with schools in their host cities to become their youth clubs. For instance, defending champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, which represent North Jeolla Province, made Youngsaeng High School their U-18 side and Kumsan Middle School their U-15 team.

"Non-pro affiliated high schools are furious because such a rule will push promising students to play for high schools that serve as youth teams for pro clubs," said Chung, who previously managed Eonnam High School in Seoul, a non-pro affiliated high school. "It's going to disrupt and bring down the whole high school football environment."

   Chung, who represented South Korea at the 1994 FIFA World Cup, said there are technical and administrative problems if a 17-year-old high school player becomes a pro.

"There's an issue of fairness if a 17-year-old footballer with a pro contract appears at high school tournaments," he said. "We've asked the K League to reconsider the new age limit, but it didn't listen. So, I told the Korea Football Association to step up to resolve this matter."

  

This photo, taken by the Korea Football Association, on Oct. 20, 2017, shows South Korea's under-18 football team players training in Busan. (Yonhap) This photo, taken by the Korea Football Association, on Oct. 20, 2017, shows South Korea's under-18 football team players training in Busan. (Yonhap)

Kim Kyung-ryang, head coach of South Korea's under-16 team, said what really matters is giving playing opportunities to teenagers, not securing football phenoms. Kim formerly was head coach of Youngsaeng High School.

"What would happen if a club decided not to use the 17-year-old after signing?," Kim said. "Before securing young talents, the league and the clubs should come up with plans to use them."

   Kim, who was also an assistant coach for South Korea at the 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup, said it will be beneficial to the youth national teams if there are players with pro experience.

"It doesn't have to be the top flight K League Classic," he said. "Playing in the R League (a competition for K League reserve members) will be enough to give young players big experience."

   The K League said it is working to set up a better environment for young league debutants.

"The whole concept of easing the age regulation is to help young promising footballers," said Kim from the K League communications team. "We'll prepare administrative grounds for high school players to appear in K League-organized youth tournaments and other competitions."

   kdon@yna.co.kr

(END)

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