2018년 06월 15일 16시 54분 KST | 업데이트됨 2020년 06월 28일 18시 01분 KST

[Huff Interview] K League Loving Foreigners on World Cup and Team Korea

Korean likes soccer. To be precise, they like ‘European football’. No matter how outspoken they are, they’ve seen teams like ‘Liverpool’ and ‘Arsenal’, and they know that ‘Champions League’ are European soccer teams. On May 27, when the UEFA Champions League final was held, there were keywords such as ‘Real Madrid’ and ‘Liverpool’ on portal site Naver Real Time Search. There are a lot of soccer fans who love teams and teams from far away countries.

On the contrary, there are foreigners who fall into Korean football. ‘K League United’ is a media for news about K League Classic (1st League), K League Challenge (2nd League) and national team. All articles including news, column and player interview are in English. All content is made by foreigners who love Korean football. It is a media that started purely with love for Korean football.

HuffPost talks with Ryan Walters, editor in Chief of ‘K League United’ about Korean football, national team, and World Cup.

Ryan Walters/K league United
Ryan Walters(left).

“Having National Team Players Simultaneously Serving In The Military Is An Extremely Interesting Fact!”

- Though there were a number of injuries before the training camp started, manager Shin Taeyong didn’t add any new members. Now that he has selected 23 players for the World Cup, do you think he made the best choice?

: Given the injuries to Lee Keun-Ho and Kwon Chang-Hoon before camp started, I think Shin Taeyong would have been wise to call in a few more players. If nothing else, more attacking options would have offered more competition for roster spots in the friendlies. Troyes AC striker Suk Hyunjun comes to mind after scoring six goals in France’s top flight, Ligue 1. Certainly not a number that will turn heads, but it’s the same number Incheon United striker Moon Seonmin had in K League when he made the final cut, Suk has a few more strengths to his game than Moon. Given the 28 man roster that was called in, I don’t think Shin Taeyong made any mistakes with the cuts, but he certainly should have given himself more options to begin with.

- South Korean media mainly focuses on international players such as Son Heungmin, Hwang Heechan, and Lee Seungwoo. Among the newly joined players from K-League, which players would you highlight?

: For those that don’t already know him, Jeonbuk’s Lee Jaesung is set to become a household name. At just 25-years-old, Lee Jaesung has already won a slew of trophies for club and country including K League MVP, three league titles, AFC Champions League, the EAFF E-1 Football Championship, and the Asian Games. Long rumored to make the move to Europe, the World Cup is the perfect stage for the midfield dynamo to showcase his skills to interested suitors. He is at his best up the middle given his passing ability and vision, but his pace and crossing capability also make him a viable option on the wings. If his skill and versatility weren’t enough, he has also proven to be a goal scoring threat from the midfield as anyone who watched the Bosnia and Herzegovina match in Jeonju can attest to. He may be done in Jeonbuk green before the end of the year, but Lee Jaesung is set to proudly wear the Taeguk Warriors red for many years to come.

- With compulsory military service in effect, there are players who are currently serving in the army - like Hong Cheol, Kim Minwoo, and Ju Sejong. Do you find this interesting? How would this dynamic affect the players? What are the characteristics of these players?

: Having national team players simultaneously serving in the military is an extremely interesting fact about the South Korean squad, and something we regularly get asked about from our readers. With compulsory military service in effect, I think it’s a great way to ensure some of the Korea’s most talented players can continue their playing career while also serving their country. Sangju Sangmu has had a number of different managers in recent years, but unsurprisingly the team regularly plays a well disciplined brand of football. A number of players, Kim Minwoo and Hong Cheol included, have actually improved their tactical awareness and ability to read the game during their military service with Sangju.

From the left, Lee Jaesung, Hwang Heechan, Kim Minwoo.

“Football Truly Is A Global Language And Provides An Easy Way To Engage With The Local Community!”

- As “a foreigner who loves K League,” what elements of K League attract you the most? How did you first get into it?

: As an American sports fan, one of the first things that really drew me into K League was promotion and relegation. This isn’t news to football fans from around the globe, but following K League closely was my first taste of an open system where teams from the top flight can be relegated to the second division. For me, it makes the entire league interesting to watch instead of just the top teams. As Incheon United fans can attest to, sometimes having your club avoid relegation on the last day of the season can feel like winning a championship, and that feeling simply is not on offer in MLS back home. My beloved Chicago Fire finished bottom of the table two years in a row and suffered no consequences for it beyond wounded pride. Meanwhile, here in K League, every team has to fight for their spot in the first division, which keeps more fans interested for longer. On the other side of it, the pure joy of K League 2 clubs that get promoted is contagious. Again, it’s far from unique in global football, but K League was the first local league to allow me to experience promotion/relegation first hand and it was one of the many things that hooked me.

- Why did you start K League United?

: There are a number of reasons, but I mainly started K League United to try and unite all of the separate voices that had existed covering K League over the years. A lot of really passionate people did great work covering their team or the entire league over the years, but as many expats do, they eventually moved back home and the work they did disappeared. So one of the goals for K League United was to provide a central hub where people can write about their team and know the work will live on even if they leave the country or stop writing for the site. Another one of the main reasons was to help foreigners bridge the cultural gap and connect with Korean culture. Football truly is a global language and provides an easy way to engage with the local community through a shared interest. Adjusting to life abroad can be difficult, but finding a community like those on offer in the stadium on match day can help make it a bit easier and a glimpse into local lifestyles.

Along with the community aspect, a huge reason I started K League United was a passion for the sport itself and the mantra “support your local.” Meaning you should support the club you are connected to, even if that connection is as simple as where you currently live. From the very beginning until today, my hope for the site has been to help people in Korea connect with their local club and take pride in the city and people that club is representing.

Main page of 'K League United'

“Hopefully, More People Will Be Inspired By The World Cup And Go Out And Support Their Local Club.”

- Considering the recognition and higher quality of the game at the World Cup, do you think more K League players joining the national team will improve the K League overall? What is it like in your country’s league?

: Anything is possible, but I don’t see the ratio of K League to European based players changing much in the near future. As long as the European leagues continue to play at the highest level and offer the highest wages to the most talented players, then South Korea’s top players will continue to make the leap to Europe and that’s who the national team manager will call in. Conversely, I think national team players that have hit a rut in Europe returning to home soil could help K League. The recently cut Lee Chungyong, who barely plays for Premier League side Crystal Palace, coming back to K League would be a great signing for the league. Especially if he returned to his former club, FC Seoul, as they are in desperate need of some help this season.

The trend of European-based stars returning home was something that helped MLS’s popularity in my home country a few years ago, so it’s possible the same thing could happen here in Korea. But more than any aging stars coming home, I truly hope some of the K League players like Go Yohan, Ju Sejong, and Lee Jaesung have a strong World Cup and show everyone what players from the domestic league are capable of. Maybe then more people would come out to cheer them on in K League.

- Who do you think is the next Ki Sungyueng or Koo Jacheol from the K League?

: I think Lee Jaesung is primed to be the next Korean star in Europe, but I’ve already talked about him quite a bit. A player I was very impressed with during last year’s U20 World Cup held here in Korea was FC Seoul’s Cho Youngwook. At just 19 years of age, he still has a lot to learn and a long way to go before being called up for the full national team, but he has shown fantastic raw ability in somewhat limited minutes with FC Seoul. His speed serves him well on the wing and he crosses the ball relatively well from there, but what impresses me most is his ability to take on defenders one-on-one from nearly anywhere on the pitch. That fearlessness and tenacity up front is something the senior national team will always need, so as long as Cho can continue his current trajectory, he may well be up for a big move to Europe in a few years time.

- Speaking of European-based players, overseas soccer is very popular in South Korea. During the finals of the UEFA Champions League, Liverpool fans gathered in local pubs and sang team songs. However, it is hard to spot this fervor fandom within the K League. Where do you think these differences come from?

Tottenham players who came through Incheon International Airport greet Korean fans. May 23, 2018.

: The difference between the support for European and domestic clubs is something nearly every Asian league is struggling with right now. International football is more accessible than it has ever been, and so fans are able to watch players at the highest level in the top leagues as often as they would like. Because of this, some fans expect every league they watch to meet the standards set by the top three or four. While K League unquestionably has talented players, none come near what the likes of Salah, Ronaldo, or Messi bring to the game. So there’s an aspect of an entertainment gap when it comes to the difference in popularity, but I think there’s a little more to it than that. I think people also want to root for a winner and it’s much easier to pick a winning team in Europe to root for than it is to support your local club through thick and thin. Sure Liverpool’s popular in Korea right now, but that wasn’t the case a few years ago when most folks were wearing Manchester United shirts. And it may well not be the case in a few years if Liverpool stop winning.

For me, the far flung – and frankly fair weather – support for European clubs is disappointing when there is a fascinating domestic league like K League in every major city with affordable ticket prices. While local fans in Liverpool are being priced out of their own stadium, K League clubs continue to see empty seats in spite of ticket prices under ₩15,000. And while it is undeniable the level of play is higher in Europe, none of those clubs can offer people here in Korea the best thing about supporting a team: the match day experience. There is absolutely nothing like being outside on a gorgeous day with thousands of other fans singing your team to victory. K League clubs like Seoul, Suwon, and Jeonbuk all have large enough supporters groups to make this evident even on TV, but hopefully more people will be inspired by the World Cup and go out and support their local club as passionately as they do one thousands of miles away.

“Let’s Face It, It’s Always Fun To Root For An Underdog!”

Ryan Walters/K league United

- Which K League team do you like the most?

: When I moved to Gwangyang in 2015 my apartment was a 10 minute walk from the Jeonnam Dragons home stadium, and they have been my team ever since. They rarely challenge for the title (or even a spot in the top half of the table), but they have given the league some of its most promising young players, and play some fun football on their day. And let’s face it, it’s always fun to root for an underdog!

‘K League United’ focuses on content related to the national team during the World Cup. As part of that, on the evening of the 16th, Ryan Walters and two editors will be previewing the Korean team at the 2018 Russia World Cup on Facebook Live.

After the World Cup, they will continue to work on the K League and Korean football. More stories about Korean football can be found on the K League United website.