World Cup could be Hong's launchpad to Europe

Posted by John Duerden

Hong Myung-bo is a fan favourite in South Korea but his popularity will be dependent on resultsGettyImagesHong Myung-bo could use the World Cup as a launchpad for a career in Europe.

Outside, the mercury was plummeting faster than David Moyes' approval ratings, but inside the Seoul Grand Hyatt Hotel on Christmas Eve 2007, the atmosphere was red hot. Hong Myung-bo, captain of the 2002 World Cup team, was onstage and engaged in a fevered game of rock-scissors-paper with former international teammate and Limahl-lookalike goalkeeper Kim Byung-ji to raise money for Hong's children's charity.

Now head coach of the national team, Hong is aiming to make Korean football dreams come true next summer and, perhaps, become the first Asian coach to become a global name and get involved in the big leagues of the global game.

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None have really done so yet. Two locals took Japan and South Korea into the knockout stage of the 2010 World Cup but were soon taking over midtable teams in East Asia. Adnan Hamad led Iraq to the semifinals of the 2004 Olympics but could never get a job outside West Asia. One coach who could speak English while pointing to an Asian Champions League win was not able to get a better offer than an assistant at a Turkish relegation battler. The decision of continental champions Japan to look for a South American or European coach after the 2010 World Cup was not much of a vote of confidence.

Stories that produce images of stern Asian coaches leading their players in never-ending exercises of endurance with barely a ball in sight can still be heard in Europe. A lack of awareness and knowledge of the Asian market also does not help, and when you add a general lack of ambition from traditional tacticians from the east to make it in the west, then perhaps it is all understandable. It will happen sooner or later as more and more Asian stars seamlessly move from a European playing career into a coaching one while, back in the east, a new and confident generation of coaches who feel more connected to the global game appear.

Hong could be the first. Those who knew him as a player had no doubt that he was destined for success in whatever field he attempted once he hung up his boots, ending one of the finest careers ever seen in Asia. The Seoul native, a classy central defender, played in four World Cups, scoring a beauty against Spain in 1994, the same team he eliminated eight years later on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Gwangju. His penalty in 2002 sent his team to the semifinal and the nation into rapture. His windmill celebration was a rare display of wild emotion from a cool character.

Named by Pele a decade ago as one of the greatest 125 living football players, the coaching version of Hong has already proved himself on the world stage. He took the under-20 team to the quarterfinals of the 2009 World Cup and took the under-23 team to the semifinals of the 2012 Olympics, when Korea fully deserved the bronze medal after defeating host Great Britain in the quarterfinals and rival Japan for third. The 44-year-old doesn't have to complete that sequence and take the senior team to the final of the 2014 World Cup to confirm a reputation as the brightest Asian coaching prospect around. If next summer will be a great shop window for players, then the same is true of the men on the other side of that white line.

South korea fans Seoul
GettyImagesSouth Korean fans will be hoping Hong Myung-bo can guide the team into the knockout stages of World Cup 2014.

Opportunity seemed to knock that little louder after last week's draw pitted the Taeguk Warriors against Belgium, Russia and Algeria. Hong trotted out the usual lines of there being no easy games at the World Cup. He's right; there are no easy games, but when compared to some of the other groups, it is relatively straightforward.

Russian boss Fabio Capello said he would learn all about Korea from fellow Italian Alberto Zaccheroni, whose Japan defeated Korea 2-1 in Hong's third game in charge in July's East Asian Cup. Hong can call for a similar favour from former Russia boss Guus Hiddink, though after spending the first six months of 2013 as the Dutchman's assistant at Anzhi Makhachkala, he will have a decent idea himself. With playing experience in Korea, Japan and the United States, that coaching stint on the edge of Europe left him wanting more, though there is plenty he wants to achieve with his homeland first.

Despite being in the job -- a tough one given the problems and divisions in the team that surfaced during a fraught World Cup qualification campaign under predecessor Choi Kang-hee -- just five months, Hong has the team moving in the right direction. In a win over Switzerland recently, fans saw the old Korea, fast and furious going forward as they overran a team that had not lost for 18 months.

He already had the players' trust thanks to the 2012 Olympics, and the fact a number of that team are now involved in the senior setup offsets, to an extent, the lack of time he has. The players respect him and are happy to accept new rules that demand suits, not T-shirts or casual attire, be worn when they report for training camps at the National Football Centre -- the five-minute walk from the car park to the main entrance had become a fashion catwalk for the massed media, and the players responded, sometimes with style, sometimes not -- with mobile phones turned off.

When not with the players, Hong has been on the move, watching his charges in European action, developing relationships with club managers and, perhaps with one eye on the future, establishing contacts and networks with a number of clubs in the west. If Hong can take the Taeguks to the knockout stage, and especially to the last eight at next year's World Cup, then a decent offer from a decent European club in a decent European league could be heading the way of an Asian coach for the first time.

It would be a meaningful moment and, even if it meant Hong could not attend future Christmas charity fund-raisers to show off his rock-scissors-paper skills, the children of Korea would understand. They, like the rest of the country -- and Asia -- would be proud.


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