By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, March 16 (Yonhap) -- Korean sports fans of certain vintage will always have a special place in their hearts for the national team at the 2002 FIFA World Cup -- be they football diehards or just casual supporters who only watch the "beautiful game" every four years.
Coached by the Dutchman Guus Hiddink, South Korea, co-hosts of the tournament with Japan, made an inexorable march to the semifinals. The Taeguk Warriors hadn't even won a match in any of their five previous World Cup appearances. Then during that magical 2002 tournament, they went undefeated before running into the wall that was Germany in the semifinals, and then losing to Turkey in the third-place match.
It remains South Korea's best performance at the World Cup and will likely stay that way for the foreseeable future. The improbable showing set off a football fever pitch not seen in the country before or since.
For those who watched the tournament live, it will be one of their most memorable sports-viewing experiences. And for fans who weren't old enough to have watched it or remember it, stars who made the country proud will always be mythical, larger-than-life figures.
In the intervening years, though, Father Time has gone undefeated. One by one, from the 21-year-old rising star Park Ji-sung to 33-year-old captain Hong Myung-bo, those players retired from the sport.
And now in 2021, Park and Hong are among several members of that 2002 team who have taken up positions in the country's pro football circuit, K League, in a wide range of capacities.
Hong, South Korea's all-time leader with 136 caps, was named new head coach of Ulsan Hyundai FC on Christmas Eve last year. Hong's post-playing career had seen him coach South Korean men's under-20, under-23 and senior national teams, plus a club in China. This is Hong's first K League coaching stop. Prior to taking Ulsan's job, Hong had been an executive director for the Korea Football Association (KFA).
Ulsan, runners-up to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in each of the past two years, hired Hong in hopes of ending their 16-year title drought. They are off to a fine start, with three wins and a draw in their first four matches with a league-best 10 goals scored.
Jeonbuk, going for a record fifth straight championship, hired Park as their adviser. In that somewhat nebulously-titled role, Park will split his time between South Korea and England, where he's taking a coaching certificate course, while assisting Jeonbuk in areas ranging from drafting and player development to scouting.
He joins one of his former 2002 teammates in Jeonbuk, as Lee Woon-jae, South Korea's top goalkeeper 19 years ago, is now an assistant coach for the club.
Unlike Hong, who had remained in football limelight well after his playing days, Park had kept a curiously low profile following his retirement in 2014. He worked briefly as the head of youth development strategy for the KFA for about a year starting in 2017, and dabbled in TV commentary during the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
In the TV booth, Park proved no match against his former national team and PSV Eindhoven teammate, Lee Young-pyo, who worked for a rival station. Lee had already developed a major following as a straight shooter with a keen eye for detail.
Lee is now in the administrative side of the game, as he became Gangwon FC's new CEO in December. Earlier this month, Lee was also named one of KFA's seven vice presidents.
Two weeks ago, K League 2 club FC Anyang named ex-midfielder Song Chong-gug as their adviser, giving him much the same responsibilities that Park has for Jeonbuk.
Though they aren't all in same positions, matches between their clubs have been billed as battles for former World Cup stars. Hong made his K League coaching debut against Lee Young-pyo's Gangwon on March 1, and Ulsan clobbered them 5-0. And Ulsan and Jeonbuk are expected to duke it out for the title this season, after Jeonbuk edged out Ulsan for each of the past two championships.
There were 23 players on that 2002 roster. More than half of them have taken up coaching or executive positions in the K League in their post-playing careers. And the list has never been more illustrious than this year, thanks to the trio of Hong, Park and Lee Young-pyo.
The significance of their presence across the K League isn't lost on Park.
"We all played in a special period in time, and we have to think of ways to return all the love and support we received from fans," Park said at his introductory press conference in January. "We're all in different positions, so I don't know if you can call our teams' matches 'battles.' But if it can help drive up interest across the league, then I am all for it."
Hong, the oldest head coach in the K League 1 this season at 52, said the K League needs more executives like Lee Young-pyo.
"He brings so much experience and knowledge of the game," Hong said, jokingly referring to Lee as "Mr. CEO." "We need more bright minds like Lee to handle club administration and management.
Hong said he and many others were able to use the 2002 World Cup to advance their careers -- Park and Lee were among those who signed with European clubs after the tournament -- and it's time for them to give back to Korean football.
"We all gained so much know-how from the experiences we had after the World Cup, and we should use that to help grow the K League even more," Hong said. "I think we have a great opportunity this season to drive fan interest."
Hong, Park, Lee Woon-jae and Lee Young-pyo are all members of the Century Club -- reserved for players with at least 100 international appearances. They're among the most celebrated names in Korean football.
Hong scored the decisive penalty in a shootout against Spain to send South Korea into the semifinals. Park netted South Korea's lone goal in a 1-0 victory over Portugal in the final group match, still regarded as one of the most iconic goals in Korean football history. Lee Woon-jae earned the moniker "Spider Hands" for his penchant for key saves, and Lee Young-pyo established himself as one of the country's smartest playmakers. Hong and Park have both been national team captains.
But these former stars have been beaten to the K League by a few of their ex-teammates.
Kim Nam-il, a key defensive midfielder on the 2002 squad, has been coaching Seongnam FC since last year. Seol Ki-hyeon, who scored a dramatic equalizer against Italy in the round of 16 that set up an extra-time victory, is the bench boss for Gyeongnam FC in the second-tier K League 2. Gyeongnam came within minutes of earning a promotion to the K League 1 in 2020, Seol's first season on the bench.
Yoo Sang-chul, who scored South Korea's second goal against Poland in a 2-0 victory to kick off the group stage, spent five years coaching three clubs in the K League, most recently Incheon United in 2019, before a battle with pancreatic cancer forced him off the bench in early 2020.
At Incheon, Yoo was working with one of the youngsters on the 2002 team, Lee Chun-soo, who was the club's director of performance improvement.
Two forwards from the 2002 team, Choi Yong-soo and Hwang Sun-hong, began the 2020 season as head coaches for FC Seoul and Daejeon Hana Citizen, but resigned midway through the year to take the fall for poor records.
Succeeding Hwang for the K League 2 club was yet another 2002 national team member, Lee Min-sung.
Kim Nam-il, head coach for Seongnam, has welcomed his former World Cup teammates to the K League.
"I think there's nothing but positive that can come out of their arrivals," Kim said. "Fans will have a lot of interesting storylines to follow. The quality of the league will improve, too."
Kim said he reserves his greatest admiration for Hong.
"When I was going through some tough times last season, I reached out to him, and he gave me such great support," Kim said. "I can't wait to see what his brand of football will look like this year. I am sure he's got some tricks up his sleeve."
His respect for Hong aside, Kim said he still wants to beat Hong's Ulsan when the two clubs meet for the first time this season on April 3.
Song, the latest 2002 World Cup hero to join the party, said he was "excited" to see so many familiar faces across the K League.
"The competition will be fun, and I also hope we can help the league and Korean football as a whole," Song said. "And if we succeed in our administrative roles, I think it will open doors for a younger generation of players down the road."
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