Failed South Korea hunt for Klinsmann successor unmasks deeper issues

Son Heung-min's South Korea will play under a second caretaker coach next month (ANTHONY WALLACE)
Son Heung-min's South Korea will play under a second caretaker coach next month (ANTHONY WALLACE)

South Korea began 2024 vowing to win the Asian Cup but they have endured a year of turmoil and are still without a coach three months after the sacking of Jurgen Klinsmann.

Led by skipper and Spurs ace Son Heung-min, South Korea are on course to reach the next stage of qualifying for the 2026 World Cup.

But all is not well in South Korean football.

Despite boasting the likes of Son and Bayern Munich defender Kim Min-jae, the Koreans were beaten 2-0 by underdogs Jordan in the semi-finals of the Asian Cup in Qatar.

It then emerged there had been a bust-up on the eve of the game between Son and Lee Kang-in of Paris Saint-Germain, leaving the captain with a dislocated finger.

Facing a fan revolt, the legendary German striker Klinsmann was subsequently fired in February after only a year in charge.

But the Korea Football Association has failed to secure a replacement and were rebuffed by top target Jesse Marsch this month when the former Leeds United boss chose Canada instead.

Now the Koreans head into next month's World Cup qualifiers under an interim coach whose previous job ended after he appeared to headbutt an assistant from an opposing team.

They had a different caretaker in charge for qualifiers in March.

South Korean football journalist Hong Jae-min told AFP that the country was going through a football "dark age" and laid the blame at the feet of KFA president Chung Mong-gyu.

"All of the problems come from president Chung -- he has been in that post for 11 years and the results are terrible," Hong said.

"He has dragged Korean football backwards, absolutely."

The KFA declined to reply to an AFP request for comment.

- Fruitless search -

The KFA reportedly talked to American Marsch and Iraq's Spanish coach Jesus Casas, with 71-year-old Senol Gunes from Turkey and former Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard also in the picture.

None of the negotiations was successful and Kim Do-hoon was this week named to lead the team on an interim basis against Singapore away on June 6 and China at home five days later.

Kim's last job was at Singapore's Lion City Sailors, who he left under a cloud after being suspended for three matches for violent conduct for an alleged headbutt during an ill-tempered game.

South Korea need just a point to be sure of reaching the next stage of World Cup qualifying.

Kim's temporary appointment comes after under-23 coach Hwang Sun-hong was put in interim charge for South Korea's home and away World Cup qualifiers against Thailand in March.

Hwang led the team to a 1-1 home draw and a 3-0 win in Bangkok, and was seen as a strong candidate for the job on a permanent basis.

But his stock plummeted when he failed to qualify the under-23s for the Paris Olympics, the first time they had missed out on the Games in 40 years.

Referring in particular to the failure to find a replacement for Klinsmann, national broadcaster KBS said South Korea were "in an unprecedented situation".

"Fans' trust in the KFA is hitting the bottom," the report said.

- 'Cheap option'? -

KFA president Chung has come in for fierce criticism, with fans and media holding him responsible for appointing and initially sticking by the deeply unpopular Klinsmann.

But the 63-year-old Chung was elected to the Asian Football Confederation's executive committee last week and journalist Hong said there was "no possibility" he would step down as KFA chief.

Hong said financial issues have been the biggest stumbling block to appointing a full-time coach, with the KFA tying up funds in building a new state-of-the-art training centre.

Hong said South Korea's track record with coaches meant fans should not expect the eventual appointment to be someone at the very highest level.

Prior to Klinsmann, the hot seat was occupied by Paulo Bento, now coach of the United Arab Emirates.

South Korea's best World Cup performance remains reaching the semi-finals under Dutchman Guus Hiddink when they jointly hosted the 2002 tournament with Japan.

"Hiddink, Bento, Klinsmann -- they were all at a low point in their careers when they came to Korea," said Hong.

"Which means they were cheap."

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