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(Yonhap Feature) Young Portuguese football coach seeks career breakthrough in S. Korea

All Headlines 10:04 October 12, 2017

By Joo Kyung-don

SEOUL, Oct. 12 (Yonhap) -- South Korea isn't everyone's land of opportunity, but for Mario Lemos, head coach of Seoul-based amateur football club TNT, the Asian country could be the one.

Lemos met his wife in South Korea after first landing here in 2013. The couple dated for about two and a half years before tying the knot last year. Now Lemos is trying to create another success story in the country -- this time with his favorite sport.

The 31-year-old Portuguese wishes to become a part of South Korea's competitive football with TNT. The team plans to compete in the K3 League -- the top-tier amateur competition run by the Korea Football Association (KFA) and de-facto fourth division in the country -- from next year. He first joined as an assistant for TNT in 2016 before being promoted to head coach this January.

"I was able to recognize his coaching potential right away as soon as I saw him," said Kim Tae-ryung, TNT's general manager and the club's former head coach. "He is professional and has the right ethics for the job. His running of the team is based on only football."

This undated photo provided by TNT FC shows their Portuguese head coach Mario Lemos watching a friendly match in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Although TNT are a small club at the amateur level, Lemos, who holds an Asian Football Confederation (AFC) grade "A" coaching license, decided to take a shot at managing them because of his hope of playing competitive football in his wife's country.

"Maybe I was naive to join TNT, but I don't regret it," Lemos said. "I may be taking a difficult road, but I enjoy coaching these players."

On Lemos' resume, there aren't any big clubs, but he already has 10 years of coaching experience. He first started out as a youth coach with FC Ferreiras in Portugal in 2007 before moving to the United States in 2010.

Lemos' coaching career took a leap in 2011 when he joined Thai Premier League side Muangthong United. He first started as their youth coach, but was eventually promoted to assistant coach for their senior squad.

Lemos, however, decided to leave Thailand in 2013 and settled for coaching South Korea's Gyeyang Middle School football team in Incheon. When asked why he left pro football in Thailand, Lemos said he wanted to test himself in a major Asian football market.

"It was my ambition that I always wanted to coach in three countries in Asia -- Korea, Japan and China," he said, speaking in English. "I tried to make my name from youth football and then move up to professional football, but in Korea, that was very hard. Then TNT gave me this opportunity to start at least with senior football, and you know, I may ... go even higher."

This undated photo provided by TNT FC shows their Portuguese head coach Mario Lemos (2nd from R) giving directions to his players at a friendly match in Seoul. (Yonhap)

For Lemos, TNT might be the right club to apply and develop his coaching philosophy.

TNT aren't one of those ordinary football clubs in South Korea. Their main purpose is to give a second chance to overlooked footballers in the country, so that they can get pro contracts and move to bigger clubs. There are around 30 players at TNT and most of them are undrafted high school or college graduates or dropouts from pro clubs.

Lemos said he knows what the TNT players want and how they feel. After all, Lemos, too, is a TNT member who wants to fly high.

"Of course, I want to coach European clubs, but if I go back to Portugal right now, I may ... get a job (at) third division clubs and that's not the level I want," he said. "I must reach the top in Asia before I go back to home."

Sharing the same desire of playing football at a higher level, Lemos said that what he emphasizes to his players is simple: behave like professionals.

"Because of (the) current environment they live in, these players who were once professionals forget where they came from," he said. "If you act like an amateur because you're in an amateur club, you'll become an amateur."

At TNT, Lemos is not the only foreign coach. Sebastien Neumann, who holds dual German and French citizenship, works as Lemos' assistant.

Neumann, who has been with TNT since 2007, said that Lemos has injected more professionalism into the club ahead of its entrance to the K3 League.

"Mario (Lemos) really made everything professional and everything with purpose," he said. "Everybody (feels) they have responsibility and they know what to do."

TNT FC head coach Mario Lemos (L) and assistant coach Sebastien Neumann watch their players practice at Haenuri Park in western Seoul on Oct. 11, 2017. (Yonhap)

The TNT players said they like Lemos' coaching style and the way he runs the team.

"Lemos only looks at the players' performance and he doesn't care about the players' age or their previous careers," said TNT team captain Kim Jung-hyun, who joined the club this winter after having stints in Japan and the third-tier National League. "He treats the players fairly, but is strict with those who don't give their best effort."

Kim Geun-cheol said Lemos knows how to motivate the players. The 34-year-old midfielder is currently the oldest and the most decorated player at TNT, having played more than 130 matches in the K League.

"He doesn't force the players to do this or that, but he leads by example," he said. "There's no communication problem between the players and the coach because he speaks easy English, and it's all football-related."

Ha Ji-won, 21, said he liked Lemos' training programs, and they have helped him to stay fit.

"All of his training programs have a meaning and they're related to the actual game on the pitch," he said. "The only thing that I feel bad about is that Lemos is too competitive, even in simple practice games."

TNT FC head coach Mario Lemos (C) speaks to his players during a training session at Haenuri Park in western Seoul on Oct. 11, 2017. (Yonhap)

Lemos said that, compared to footballers he has coached in other countries, South Korean players are disciplined and their technical and physical strength aren't that inferior. But what he thinks the players need to improve is their creativity and decision making.

"I rarely see the players asking me questions here," he said. "What I try to do in my coaching, I put the players in different scenarios, then in the real game, they'll realize, 'Oh, I've been here,' and (know) how to handle the situation."

Like many other young coaches in his generation, especially as someone from Portugal, Lemos' idol is Jose Mourinho, now manager of Manchester United.

"I think (Mourinho) opened the door for people like me who didn't really have a successful professional player career," he said. "Someday, I want to coach clubs like Real Madrid and FC Porto."

But in order to achieve his dream, Lemos knows he first needs to work hard on his current project, which is to make TNT ready for the K3 League next season.

Lemos will sign an official contract once TNT get the KFA's approval to become a K3 League team. Until now, he has been working for TNT almost for free.

"This has been a big challenge for me," he said. "Most people told me because of (the) different system, culture and my connection, I'm not going to get what I want. But I'm slowly getting up there."

TNT FC head coach Mario Lemos (C) watches his players during a training session at Haenuri Park in western Seoul on Oct. 11, 2017. (Yonhap)


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