There were no mentions of dreams fulfilled or patriotic honor
when Choi Kang-hee reluctantly accepted the job as South Korea’s
new national team coach.
Rarely has a man entrusted with such a position looked less
excited to be given the chance to lead his country to the World
Cup. In his first press conference in his new role on Thursday,
Choi looked like he had been dragged into the hot seat.
He was content coaching Jeonbuk Motors in the mid-sized
provincial city of Jeonju in Korea’s rural southwest, but now the
taciturn tactician is charged with the task of leading an expectant
nation to Brazil in 2014 and an eighth successive appearance on the
Choi, 52, was the longest serving club coach in the domestic
K-league, and since 2005 had slowly turned Jeonbuk into the best
team in the country and one of the best in Asia. The former
international player led the Motors to the 2006 Asian Champions
League title and the final of the 2011 version, when the team
dominated the match against Al Sadd of Qatar only to lose after a
Four days after Choi lifted the K-League trophy for the second
time with the club on December 4, the Korea Football Association
fired Cho Kwang-rae in the wake of a shocking 2-1 defeat away to
Even before Cho’s dismissal, the KFA contacted Choi to offer him
the job. He refused, the first of a number of times he turned down
advances from the association.
”Even a week ago, I didn’t even think one percent that I would
be here,” Choi said on Thursday. ”I had promised the fans and
players of Jeonbuk that I would sign a new contract with the club.
I changed my mind as I felt the national team is in a serious
Choi had earlier left a lengthy message on Jeonbuk’s home page
promising fans that it was not a goodbye but a see-you-later and
was at pains to point out that he was not a long-term
”My contract will be until June 2013, and then I hope to return
to my club,” he said. ”For the sake of the national team, Korea
should find an experienced foreign manager.”
Choi’s words contradicted those of KFA executive director Kim
Jin-kook who earlier told reporters that if the new coach took the
team through qualification, he would stay on for another year.
Such a contradiction capped a confusing two weeks during which
damaged the KFA’s reputation.
The decision to appoint the reluctant Choi was described by
sections of the local media as yet another example of the powerful
national association riding roughshod over the domestic league.
Fans internet forums have debated the Hyundai connection. Many
of the top-ranked KFA executives have backgrounds with the
conglomerate; Hyundai also sponsors the league and owns Jeonbuk
Motors, Choi’s employer.
KFA president Cho Chung-yeon has taken a back seat in the whole
affair and allowed Hwangbo Kwan, the newly appointed chairman of
the technical committee which oversees all national team affairs,
to do the explaining.
After his dismissal, Cho Kwang-rae, appointed in July 2010,
accused Hwangbo of not following the proper procedures.
”The technical committee is the core of designing the future of
Korean football, and I’m completely disappointed about the way that
the KFA suddenly notifies the manager of his dismissal,” he
”The committee thus is not the division only existing to select
and to dismiss managers; it’s the part that can decide the next
century of the sport, and the committee must be autonomous without
being affected from outside.”
Cho repeated the views of many in the country when he suggested
that Hwangbo was merely acting on behalf of superiors was preferred
to stay in the background. A widely circulated cartoon had KFA
president Cho Chung-yeon operating Hwangbo as a string puppet.
”I doubt whether the chief of the committee exercised his
authority independently; and wonder if some high football officials
or other powerful groups outside football made the decision,” said
Despite the criticism, the KFA is delighted to have finally
lured the leading domestic coach, and while Choi’s tenure may not
be a long one, the association is confident that it will last
longer than one vital upcoming game.
South Korea hosts Kuwait on February 29 in Seoul. Defeat in that
match and the 2002 World Cup semifinalists could be eliminated from
Asian qualification at the penultimate round. A draw will seal a
place in the final stage of qualification.
After appearances in every World Cup since 1986, the nation
expects no less.