J. Legacy – The neighbors: South Korea

After a quarter of century, J. League has established itself as one of the most known leagues over the world, certainly the best in Asia, which might be capable to reach also audiences from all over the world in the future. This rise, though, happened thanks to a lot of factors and one of them has been the presence of foreign players. Many of them came, some of them left a solid mark, few of them opted to stay after their Japanese experience.

Their coming to Japan raises the same old question: marquee players or true icons? Just a way to pump attendances up or memories that stay with fans forever? This is why this column is here. We wanted to homage the footballing movements who shaped the history of Japanese football and the J. League.

We picked six nations and we’re featuring someone for every episode to help us understanding why that particular player represents so clearly the contribute that country gave to Japan. The fifth episode concerns something worth more than a single player, since this football movement has given a lot to Japan. This may go for several reasons: proximity, historical-related ties and a shared way through Asian football’s development.

We’re talking, of course, about South Korea. A lot of players took part to J. League, collecting several records and most of all achieving different feats. Titles, moments, emotions: the connection is undeniable, but it’s so big that’s hard to reduce it to just one figure. We’ve tried and, even if we’ve identified two or three valuable profiles for this purpose, we thought of going big.

And who can help in a better way of the best page about South Korean football around? The one that even has ties with the officials of K League, co-running their editorial line? K League United (@KLeagueUnited) had to be the pick for going through this massive relationship, probably the hugest among the one we’ve mentioned until now.

Case in point? The winning-goal of the most recent triumph by Japan in the AFC Asian Cup was scored by Tadanari Lee, a well-known figure in J. League, but he might also go by the name of Lee Chung-Sung, since he’s the son of third generation Zainichi Korean parents.

The long and winding road

To help us in retelling such an important relationship, we got lucky and the K League United squad was kind enough to let us talk with George Slade (@GWMSlade), who told us everything and gave us a bigger picture about the ties between these two powerhouses of Asian football.

Their links are not recent, but something that stands the test of time, just like George said: “It’s a complicated one. For over two thousand years, these countries in their various forms have traded, fought and learnt from each other. Sport is no different, as both Japan and South Korea are lovers of both baseball and football, a combination that is hard to find anywhere else”.

There aren’t only feuds though between Japan and South Korea, since George immediately reminded an important point, who might come to the mind of several neutral fans: “When most people think of sporting relations between the two countries, there is a good chance that the first thing to pop into their heads will be the 2002 FIFA World Cup, which they hosted together”.

Who’s writing this piece will tell you that’s actually the first World Cup he can think of. The exotic destination, the events of a surprising tournament, the stories which came out of that month stayed with us. But cutting all the history of the relationship between the two countries to just or mostly this would be unfair.

Still George: “It goes back a lot further, however. During the Japanese colonization of Korea, football tournaments were held and Korean teams competed in the Emperor’s Cup. In 1935 a Korean team, Kyungsung FC, became the only non-Japanese team in history to win the tournament. It was though a strictly amateur tournament, while the pro-game made its way to region only in the 80s and 90s with the creation of the K League (in 1983 as the Korean Super League) and the J.League (in 1992)”.

It took some time, but the football history of the two countries was radically different. The highest export of Japanese football until the arrival of J. League was Yasuhiko Okudera, who enjoyed a long career in Germany. At the same time, though, Korea – counting both North and South, despite they’ve been separated since the end of World War II – had Cha Bum-kun in Bundesliga and most of all a more successful national team.

At the end of the 80s, the Taeguk Warriors won two Asian Cups in a row, always came in the Top 3 when featuring in the continental competition and played their first World Cup after a long drought, which lasted 32 years. Meanwhile, Japan featured just once in the Asian Cup and lost all their games in 1988 and they seemed far from qualifying to a World Cup final phase.

George can though clearly identify where the exchange happened: “It was during this time that players from both countries began to professionally play in each other’s leagues. In South Korea, the first professional Japanese player was right-back/winger Kojiro Kaimoto, who won two K League championships during his spell 2001-02 spell at Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma”.

And that’s not the only connection you can count on, since another kind of player significantly populated the J. League since its inception. Yes, because North Korea have been on their own for the last 75 years, but they made an impact on the world of football through their performance at the 1966 FIFA World Cup and another tool: North Korean players in the Japanese championship.

George retells how this happened: “The year of 2001 also saw the first North Korean to play in South Korea – forward Ryang Kyu-sa. He spent one season at Ulsan Hyundai Horang-I, but even though he featured for North Korea internationally, he was actually born in Japan. The same goes for all North Korean players that were able to play in either South Korea or Japan, they were all actually born in Japan”.

This goes back to a certain phenomenon: “After Korea gained its independence from Japan, many Koreans living in Japan returned home, but at the same time many stayed. When the Korean War caused the division between North and South Korea, these Koreans in Japan became stateless and the North Korean government spent a lot of money and resources trying to make them supporters of the North”.

In fact, it’s not been rare to have seen several Japanese-born players then represent North Korea on the international stage. And there are some notable names, like George reminds us: “For example, current Suwon FC player An Byong-jun in K League 2 (who last played in Kumamoto in Japan)”. We might add a bunch of names: Ryang Yong-gi, Ri Yong-jik, Ri Han-jae or even Kagoshima United FC manager, Kim Jong-song.

Ryang Yong-gi hits a soft spot for J. League fans. He has been also the captain of Vegalta Sendai and he still found a gig for 2020 with Sagan Tosu.

But there’s one name that stands above others, Shimizu S-Pulse’s captain Jong Tae-se: “He started his career as a prolific scorer at Kawasaki Frontale, with his most productive season in 2009 (21 goals in 47 matches). He then subsequently spent three years in Germany for 2. Bundesliga clubs like VfL Bochum and 1. FC Köln, before moving to K League and joining Suwon Samsung Bluewings”.

In fact, neutral fans might remember Jong Tae-se mostly for two traits: the nickname “the People’s Rooney” and his tears hearing the North Korean national anthem in their debut game against Brazil at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Touching images, certainly curious anecdotes, but Jong Tae-se has taken for himself a solid role in J. League narrative, joining S-Pulse in 2015 and bringing them immediately back to J1 after a tough relegation.

And it’s not like Jong Tae-se hasn’t thrived with his national teams, like George tells: “Alongside his club achievements, he has also played 33 times and scored 15 goals for North Korea, and even competed with them at the 2010 FIFA World Cup”. It was indeed a magical moment for the striker, although his best days seems behind him.

The South Korean Wave: the first phase

Looking back to the beginning of J. League, South Korean players haven’t immediately caught the eye of Japanese football fans. Sure, there were already some valuable members among J. Leaguers – in the 1994 FIFA World Cup squad, Noh Jung-yoon resulted to be included and was the first South Korean to play in J. League –, but we needed to wait to see some of them having a definitive impact.

George confirms this tendency: “The history of South Koreans playing in Japan goes back even further than Japanese or North Koreans in South Korea. The first players to make the move actually came over in the 1980’s before the professional era in Japan, as forward Park Yoon-ki played for Matzda FC (now Sanfrecce Hiroshima) in 1988, and left-back Chang Woe-ryong joined Tosu Futures (now Sagan Tosu) as a player-coach in 1989”.

Both became coaches, although it was Chang Woe-ryong to make the most of his coaching career. But the situation improved a lot throughout the last two decades, with a lot of South Koreans populating the rosters of J. League teams, going from the first division until the JFL, the first amateur division in Japanese football.

In remembering some of them, George has some clear priorities: “Kashima Antlers goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae, for example: he spent the first decade of his career in his homeland at Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, where he won three K League 1 titles and two AFC Champions Leagues. Then he also won that year’s Japanese Super Cup with his new club and helped guide the team to their first ever AFC Champions League trophy in 2018”.

Despite this and other examples, only four players made to the Best XI in the history of J. League. And two of them came much, much time later from the first ones.

It took seven seasons to witness the first South Korean player selected for such honor. But Hwang Sun-hong isn’t your ordinary striker, since he has been legend both on and off the pitch for South Korean football:

George goes back to the events that lead to that year: “Hwang first joined Cerezo in the summer of 1998 and scored six goals in 11 matches. In the successive season, he truly left his mark in the country, scoring 24 goals in 25 games to not only secure his place in the Best XI, but to also become the first and so far only South Korean to win the J. League Golden Boot”.

It was indeed a magical season, since Cerezo Osaka came sixth and most of all Hwang proved to be even more efficient than in K League, since he never lived another season of 20+ goals somewhere else. But this was on the cards, given in his young age he even featured for Bayer Leverkusen – although for the reserves team, scoring though 10 goals in 10 games – and the small Wuppertaler SV.

His successive moves were crucial for his career, despite a premature end of his German adventure, like George underlines: “Due to a ruptured cruciate ligament in his knee, Hwang then returned to his homeland and signed for Pohang Steelers at the end of 1993. He made the K League Best XI in 1995 and won two FA Cups, two Asian Club Championships and one League Club during his time in Pohang”.

But it didn’t stop there, because he joined also for a small period for Suwon Samsung Bluewings. Unfortunately, he didn’t feature there for any single match. He then moved to Kashiwa Reysol, narrowly missing a co-existence with Yoon Jong-hwan, signed by Cerezo Osaka. He then became the first Korean to ever win the J. League Manager of the Year title after his Emperor’s Cup and League Cup double for Cerezo in 2017.

Hwang never peaked again even with Kashiwa, but his legacy has been intact thanks to his coaching abilities: “He managed several Korean clubs, winning four titles and two K League 1 Manager of the Year awards across his stints at Pohang and FC Seoul – reminds George –. He was one of the first big Asia star strikers in the league, showing Japanese clubs that they do not need to search far and wide for big names from Europe, Africa, or the Americas, as Asia can provide a rich source of attacking talent”.

South Korea waited just one more year to donate another member to the famous Best XI and the name was a big one. Before Kashiwa Reysol became the dynasty we’ve all got used to know in 2010s, the club had another good run between 90s and 2000s, winning the 1999 J. League Cup and enjoying some success. That name was Hong Myung-bo.

Compared to Hwang Sun-hong, Hong’s profile is even bigger, despite they played together with Pohang Steelers. He was picked by Pelè to be in FIFA 100 list (the only Asian player with Hidetoshi Nakata), he was a crucial figure for the national team throughout more than a decade and gained a lot of notoriety despite never having played in Europe (although he closed his career outside of Asia, by featuring in MLS with LA Galaxy).

It’s tough to summarize his figure, but George gave it a try: “Hong Myung-bo was primarily a sweeper, but while his position was different from Hwang, they had plenty of parallels in their careers. Hong moved to Japan in 1997 to play for Bellmare Hiratsuka (now Shonan Bellmare), It was at his second Japanese club Kashiwa Reysol that Hong would have his biggest impact in Japan”.

We could also say that his gig in Chiba was the highest point of his club career, since the biggest achievements reached by Hong Myung-bo came mostly thanks to his performances with the national team. His goals in the 1994 FIFA World Cup, his early caps in 1990 in Italy and his topical role in being the leader of the 2002 team – where he became the first Asian player to feature in four tournaments – will always be remembered among South Korean fans.

George sales the essential point, which features Hong in the pantheon of South Korean sports: “Hong truly is one of the greatest defenders that has never played in Europe or South America and even Pelé acknowledged his talent. Hong showed that Asian players could be superstars and defensive players could be admired: there’s no doubt that a whole generation of defenders in the region look to him for inspiration”.

Yes, because despite his coaching career hasn’t been comparable to the one on the pitch – Hong indeed guided the U-23 team to the bronze medal in London at the 2012 Olympic Games –, since this has closed abruptly after the poor results with the senior team and a two years-stint at Hangzhou Greentown. Still, George tells us that “he may have never achieved great success as a manager, but his impact as a player cannot be understated”.

In a strange way, South Korean players remained largely in the J. League conversation, since five out of 23 players in the 2002 squad played in J. League, the same number of players featuring in the 2018 World Cup roster. Despite that, we had to wait 18 years to see another South Korean player to feature in the Best XI of J. League. 2018 offered two more figures to talk about.

One of those five players in 2002? Park Ji-sung, who made Kyoto Sanga great before leaving for Eindhoven and then Manchester.

The South Korean wave: the recent revamp

We said that two more players featured in the Best XI of J. League. Following a second successful title run, Kawasaki Frontale had several team members included in 2018: among them, there was their goalkeeper, Jung Sung-ryong. Despite being left out of the national team in the last years, his contribute to Frontale’s titles in J. League was fundamental.

George recalls his beginnings: “Jung first joined Kawasaki in 2016 after a successful career in South Korea where he played for Pohang Steelers, Seongnam and Suwon Samsung Bluewings. While at Pohang he won the 2007 K League 1 title and at Seongnam he won the AFC Champions League, and even though he did not win a club trophy at Suwon he did find success on the international stage during that period”.

So he was definitely an established keeper to count on, especially for a team that suffered a little in that department: Frontale had the credit of showing Eiji Kawashima to the world, but at the same time they didn’t face such luck after him, so they clearly needed a man of experience. Given Jung’s successes and his position in the national team – he was in London as an overaged player to win the bronze medal –, he was the right choice.

If that medal in England made him skip military duty, the adventure in Japan gifted something even more important: “Jung may be aging and lost his place in the Kawasaki team for parts of the last season, but his influence on Japanese football has been undeniable. There have always been foreign keepers in the J. League, but his success has seen an increase in signings of foreign goalkeepers”.

In fact, Jung enjoyed a lot of success with Frontale: he won two league titles, a Japanese Super Cup and a J. League Cup. Most of all, he’s a clear landmark for the club, who kept him around even for 2020, despite Shota Arai – the hero from the 2019 J. League Cup triumph – seemed on the run to take his place. Arai went to JEF United and Jung won’t have to fight again for his spot, so his role remains important.

George wonders if this might be of example also for the South Korean championship: “It will be interesting to see if this influences the K League, as they do not allow any foreign goalkeepers to play in the league. If Korean goalkeepers continue to leave for places like Japan, then the K League may have to reassess their position”.

His first year in J. League.

If Jung Sung-ryong is coming to the end of his career, the curve is radically different for Hwang Ui-jo, which back then in 2018 paired Jô in the only two forwards picked up to be selected in the Best XI of that season. Despite Gamba Osaka haven’t been living the best of times in the last seasons, the pick was justified by the huge impact of Hwang on the Nerazzurri of Osaka and, in general, by how few months he needed to adapt to J. League.

The incredible trait is that Hwang wasn’t a main name in K League at the time of his move to Japan, since he made a name for himself with Seongnam, who were though playing in the second division: “With Seongnam, he won the Korean FA Cup in 2014 and proved himself to be a regular goal-scorer, though he only ever made it to double-digits once, when he scored 21 goals and 45 matches in 2015. At first it seemed that maybe 2015 was a fluke”.

Like George underlined, it might have taken some time for him to adjust to J. League, but once it happened, everything changed drastically both for the South Korean forward and Gamba Osaka. 2018 was his season for two different reasons: the score of 21 goals in all competitions with his club and the gold medal won in the Asian Games, who let everyone involved skip military duty.

And if Son Heung-min didn’t have to face this mandatory period, he has to thank also Hwang Ui-jo, who scored nine goals on the road to the gold medal. After such a solid year, some clubs began looking to him as a possible new add. Bordeaux took the gamble and the season was going fine before COVID-19 shut down Ligue 1 before the end. Surely though, Hwang looks bright in the French top tier.

Looking back to 2018 and everything that unfolded, George reminds us that Hwang has been solid: “He earned his place on the Best XI by reminding everyone of Hwang Sun-hong’s legacy that deadly strikers can be found anywhere, not just in the world’s top footballing nations. Hwang Ui-jo has cemented himself into the memories of J. League fans thanks to 2018: he’ll continue to inspire Korean players to view Japan as the next step in their careers”.

Memorable season.

Given this four players, you have to wonder though how a football nation capable of featuring in ten World Cups (nine in a row), playing the 2015 Asian Cup final, winning 11 AFC Champions League titles through their clubs didn’t see many players in J. League’s Best XI. There have been players who could have been quality-wise of featuring there and we bet there are going to be even this season.

2020 will see talented players like Kim Jin-hyeon (who would have already deserved to be nominated in 2019, given Cerezo Osaka’s defensive record), Kim Seung-gyu, Kim Young-gwon. But the best seems behind us: South Korean players tend to try the jump to Europe directly instead of passing through Japan. This has been pretty evident in the last decade and it might get tough to change.

There’s though a difference from there: South Korean clubs are dropping in performances in the AFC Champions League, while the national team has struggled to get qualified to the last World Cup. Will this drop be real and constant in the next years? And if so, will this bring more South Korean players to go first to Japan? We don’t know, but it’ll be a fascinating trend to observe. Meanwhile, J. League can only say “kam sa ham ni da”.

Last but not least: we have to deeply thank K League United for this precious retrospective. George Slade helped us a lot and we have to thank also Ryan Walters (@MrRyanWalters) for suggesting him as a possible resource for our piece. Best of luck to the guys watching over the K League and his narration over the world.

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