(World Cup) Coach Hong Myung-bo's legacy tainted by disappointing World Cup

2014/06/28 09:00

By Yoo Jee-ho

SAO PAULO, Brazil, June 27 (Yonhap) -- The head coaching position of the South Korean men's national football team is often referred to as the "poisoned chalice," for the job isn't always what it's cracked up to be.

It is arguably the most visible job in South Korean sports. And with fame and the high profile come unreasonable expectations, which have been so heightened after the Dutch coach Guus Hiddink guided South Korea to the semifinals at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

Though it was a historic run that probably will never be duplicated, the South Koreans, who are usually more passionate about their national team than the domestic professional clubs, have come to expect nothing less than a berth in the knockout stage at each ensuing World Cup. They have become tougher to please over the years.

South Korean head coach Hong Myung-bo gives orders to his players during their 1-0 loss to Belgium at the FIFA World Cup in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on June 26, 2014. (Yonhap)

South Korean head coach Hong Myung-bo gives orders to his players during their 1-0 loss to Belgium at the FIFA World Cup in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on June 26, 2014. (Yonhap)

Yet coaches that have come and gone since Hiddink, Koreans or foreign nationals, have not come close to clearing that high bar of expectations.

Hong Myung-bo, whose team crashed out of this year's World Cup in Brazil on Thursday, became the latest to join their ranks, as he leaves Brazil with his football legacy somewhat tainted. Hong has led a charmed life in football and the early exit here represented his first major failure.

Hong took over the team last June, only about a year to go before the World Cup, after South Korea barely squeezed into the finals out of the Asian qualifying. Tasked with overhauling an underachieving squad with a limited pool of talent, Hong, it could be said, was set up for failure.

Still, the fickle fans back home won't let Hong off the hook so easily.

At the start of his national team career, Hong built himself an image as a principled leader who would stick to his set of values under any circumstances. Hong, a former captain for South Korea, preached the "team-first" values at his inaugural press conference, insisting that no single player would be above the team.

He also outlined his philosophy on player selection -- that he would only call up players who are getting regular minutes on their respective clubs, be it for friendlies or World Cup matches.

Little did Hong know he'd just dug himself a hole.

With South Korea struggling to score goals in early matches on his watch, Hong decided to make an exception and selected forward Park Chu-young for a friendly against Greece in March.

Park fit the profile of the very player who wouldn't be picked by Hong. He'd barely played for his Premier League club, Arsenal, for the past three seasons and his fate had changed little after joining another English club, Watford, on a loan in January.

When Hong rescued him from football exile, Park responded with the eventual winner in South Korea's 2-0 win over Greece. He hurt himself in the match and played only the opening half, and when he came down with a foot infection in April, it seemed unlikely Park would be named to the World Cup squad.

Then the Korea Football Association (KFA) made a special arrangement for Park, allowing him to rehab his injury and train at the national team's training facility even weeks before the World Cup team would be announced. The KFA explained it was merely trying to help a player who had a chance to play in the World Cup.

On May 8, Park made the 23-man squad. Defensive in his explanation over the choice, Hong said he couldn't find a better player for the striker position than Park.

Hong made another selection that was no less controversial. He picked Yun Suk-young, who hadn't seen much action for Queens Park Rangers (QPR) in England, as one of the left fullbacks over Park Joo-ho, who made 26 starts in his first Bundesliga season with FSV Mainz 05 and emerged as one of the steadiest fullbacks in Germany.

Hong faced criticism that he'd mostly chosen players who had competed with him at earlier international events, such as the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2009 and the London Olympics in 2012. A dozen players from the Olympics made the World Cup squad, and these players came to be collectively known as "Hong Myung-bo's Children," though the term took on an increasingly pejorative connotation portraying Hong as an overly protective father and players as members of an inner circle.

The situation became awkward for Hong a few weeks later, when Park was named a replacement for an injured fullback, Kim Jin-su.

These choices also put pressure on the players, who had to prove their worth and justify their coach's decision.

It may or may not have been due to such a burden, but neither Park Chu-young nor Yun Suk-young performed well in Brazil.

Park Joo-ho, who once said in an interview in Brazil he was desperate to play "even for just one minute," didn't get his wish.

On the eve of the match against Belgium, Hong was defiant in the face of criticism that he was being too stubborn with his lineup choices.

"We as a team will make such decisions at our discretion," Hong said. "I understand I can be considered a great coach one day and a terrible one the next. But that's the life of a coach, and I don't mind it."

   As long as South Korea had produced results, the decision to stick with virtually the same lineup would have been considered a brilliant and principled move by a man of conviction. Now that South Korea has been eliminated, Hong will be subjected to endless second-guessing over his inflexibility.

Hence is the nature of the ruthless 'what-have-you-done-for-me-lately' world of coaching.