Off-field factor helps German-born manager stay in job longer than predecessors
By Kang Hyun-kyung
Korea's qualifier against China slated for March 23 is critical for the country's ninth consecutive entry to the World Cup. Currently Korea is a runner-up in Group A with 10 points following Iran which has 11 points. If the national team posts a victory in the game to be held in the northeastern Chinese city of Changsha, Korea will add 3 points which will make it easier for its advance in the 2018 Russian World Cup.
The March 23 qualifier will be another milestone for Uli Stielike -- he will be the longest-serving national team manager once the daunting match is over.
Taking the helm on Sept. 24, 2014, under a four-year contract until the Russian World Cup, his total days with the Korean national team will be 912 on March 24. Before the German-born manager, Korea's longest-serving national team manager was Huh Jung-moo who had stayed at the helm for 911 days.
Football analyst Park Moon-sung said Stielike holding onto the job, despite criticisms from some football fans and experts, seems to be partly associated with an off-fielder factor, rather than his leadership.
According to him, the Korean Football Association (KFA), which is responsible for selecting and sacking the national team manager, learned a lesson from its past trials and realized coaching staff reshuffles are not a panacea to upgrading the competitiveness of the national team.
Stielike set to renew the tenure record is a reflection of the KFA's learning curve, Park said. "It's true that Stielike did a great job in his early days after he assumed the leadership in 2014," Park said. "Stielike was an agent of change by changing the atmosphere of defeatism in the national team in the wake of the 2014 Brazil World Cup. He discovered hidden soccer talents and put them in the team to innovate it."
Stielike is the replacement of Korea's soccer legend Hong Myung-bo after the national team was crushed during the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Korea had one draw and two defeats and failed to advance to the Round of 16.
It ranked 23rd, which was the worst ranking of the national team this century. The national team advanced to the Round of 16 during the 2010 South Africa World Cup with 1 win, 1 draw and 2 defeats and placed 15th. It ranked 17th in the 2006 German World Cup, although the national team failed to advance in the Round of 16.
It was smooth sailing for Stielike in his early years after taking the leadership post. He drew accolades from football fans after the national team advanced in the 2015 Asian Football Conference Cup final. Korea became a runner-up after a defeat in the final game against Australia there. Korea's advancing to the AFC Cup final came nearly three decades after it became a runner-up in 1988.
Football fans portrayed him as a great leader with various nicknames, such as "Stielike, the God" or "Dasan" after the penname of Jeong Yak-yong (1762-1836), one of the greatest thinkers of the Joseon Dynasty. Some fans labeled Stielike as the initiator of "wetland soccer" to indicate Korea's dominance in matches against foreign teams. Once they face Korea, they said, the opponents are stuck in the middle of a quagmire just as they were trapped in a swamp.
Stielike's solid reputation, however, didn't last long. His leadership was put to the test several times and the most recent challenge came in October after the Korea-Iran match. Korea lost the game 1-0.
Korea's loss was disappointing, but what frustrated football fans and experts here was the way the national team played in Iran. There were no shot attempts by Korean players throughout the game. Some said teamwork was a source of the problem. Rumors about a coaching staff reshuffle had spread.
Stielike's reaction to the frustrating game fueled criticism. He blamed the players for the disappointing outcome and said Korea lost partly because there was no Korean striker who was as great as Qatari striker Sebastian Soria. As his remarks backfired, Stielike later said his words were misinterpreted.
What the German-born manager has been going through is not a new phenomenon. Stielike's predecessor, Hong Myung-bo, had a similar experience. Before he took the helm, the football legend was praised as a hero who led the national team to win a bronze medal in the London Olympics. The star manager suddenly fell into harsh criticism after the national team posted disappointing results during the Brazil World Cup. Hong was described as a bigot who led the team in his own way which was doomed to fail.
National football team managers are portrayed as holding a poisoned chalice. Taking the helm is something admirable but it could turn out to be fatal when things go badly.
If the team wins, the manager is praised as a hero. But if the players fail to meet the standards of football fans, the players and manager suffer the consequences. Those who are in the leadership are in the hot seat as manager-bashing follows. They are subject to witch hunts.
The relatively short tenures of national team managers show the tough reality facing them. Since the 1948 London Olympics, 68 people have served as national football team managers before Stielike, showing that their average tenure is a year or so.