Ka Sam-hyun, or Sam Ka, as he is known in the offices of football associations and stadiums around the world, may not like the label of “Korea’s Mr. Football,” but as he seems to be in charge of pretty much everything at the Korean Football Association, it suits him well.
The KFA’s General Secretary is the man who brought 2002 and 2006 World Cup coaches Guus Hiddink and Dick Advocaat to South Korea. A talk with Sam Ka is an introduction to the recent history of the Korean national team.
What do you do?
I am the General Secretary of the KFA. I have been in charge of the Keluaran Sgp international office for over 10 years. I was in charge of the organization of the World Cup and Confederations Cup 2001. Now I am in charge of not only international affairs but general administration, marketing, PR, communications and the most important thing — competitions.
You are Korea’s “Mr.Football.”
[Smiles] I don’t like that, I can’t kick a ball.
Was 2002 the highlight of your time at the KFA?
So far, yes.
Some people have said, myself included, that the problem after 2002 was that the KFA thought the hard work had been done and relaxed too much. Do you agree with that?
The 2002 World Cup was a double-edged sword. 2002 was very successful in terms of organization and our team was very successful and the people of Korea were very happy.
Technically, professionally there were some negative points. When you have a big success expectations rise. The expectations of people in the government, the media, the fans and society have been too high.
You must know the background of Korea, — the development of the game and grass roots. This is a weak point for us, you know how many teams we have compared to other countries. The difference is big.
Not only in football but Korea’s whole past was based on the elite development system. Every sport has a weak base with a limited number of players because everything was focused on elite players.
It was very difficult to develop football from grass roots up to professional level.
Another problem is that our teams are based on schools and not a club system. We are trying to change this, to introduce competitions and tournaments for the clubs and we have several hundred club teams coming up.
In 2002, the national team received a lot of support from the KFA, has it been the same since?
Firstly, until the 2002 World Cup we had very good co-operation and support from everybody, including the club sides and the players. Therefore we could concentrate our efforts on preparing the national team for the World Cup. I am sure you have heard of how many days they had at training camps, it was almost perfect — we even postponed the start of the league until after the World Cup.
After the World Cup everyone said “we are the semi-finalists” in world football, we mostly follow the system of developed football countries. We changed our regulations many times and did so again last year in order to make the days that players are released from clubs less and less every year. Now most of our regulations follow FIFA.
It is more difficult these days, even before the 2006 World Cup, we could not get the players together. In the past during a World Cup year we could have our players for one or two months no problem.
This year we had a long and very difficult negotiation with our club sides in the K-League in order to get permission for a three or four weeks training camp even though it was final preparation for the World Cup.
After that we didn’t get any days for national team outside FIFA dates.
It is the same for most other countries..
I am not complaining but just saying that our base standards and technical standards are different than Europe.
I don’t complain, I am happy to have this normal situation but the problem is the expectation from the people is different.
They still expect the days when we could get the players for two or three months. The coach of the national team now has a big problem.
Even the youth coach is complaining that he can’t get the players for the Busan tournament. He wants good players who are 19 but are playing for their clubs but it is difficult.
After 2002 World Cup, everybody wants our players to go abroad for a good experience. We help them to go but it creates another problem because we have lost many good players like Ji-sung or Young-pyo — our domestic league has another problem, most of the famous players had left.
Tell me about the search for a new coach in May 2004 and the appointment of Jo Bonfrere.
Before Bonfrere, the KFA technical committee was too aggressive. They chose so many names and officially held interviews. Then they met Metsu, Scolari, Gunes and also the Irish coach McCarthy.
The KFA met these people?
Yes, so many people — six or seven people. It was an unusual type of search. Personally I thought it was not good because if you know that you are one of six or seven people being interviewed, some coaches like Scolari, who was a world champion, then they don’t like it.
Bonfrere wasn’t in the original list…
Why was Bonfrere appointed?
Bruno Metsu was first choice.
Bonfrere was on the list from 2000 when Dr.Lee was chairman. We had two names — Aime Jacquet and Hiddink. We had another list of two — Henri Michel and Bonfrere.
We had many names but we had the first two names and Bonfrere was one of the second two names. This way was much better as we didn’t announce but we had internal discussions.
I met Aime Jacquet first and then Hiddink and then we finished, otherwise Bonfrere and Michel would have been next.
At the time he was known as the coach of the 1996 Nigerian Oylmpic team. Next time he was on our list, one of 20, 40 or 60 names. He was one of the volunteers for the job.
We have some coaches who wanted to come, some coaches that are recommended to us and some coaches who are just picked by the committee — like Scolari.
He let you know that he was interested?
He was always interested in getting a job in Asia as far as we knew.
Anyway at that time in 2004, we decided on Bruno Metsu. When it was announced by the media in Korea it was hell. He called me and he said that he had received more than 100 phone calls in the day that we announced it.
He became really nervous — too much — so he switched off his phone. Then he changed his mind and went to a Qatari club.
After this, our committee decided not to open the process and the names were kept secret. We got another five, six, seven names. We went to Europe with a very low profile. We met many coaches including some from Northern Europe.
I don’t like to say. Northern Europe and then Eastern Europe, South Europe and West. The committee chairman especially wanted a coach from Western Europe.
We had some other young and very good coaches I think from North and East Europe.
Why Western Europe?
The thinking was that the personality of a person from Western Europe should be more bright and more positive than elsewhere.
It was also better to have a coach that can speak English so unfortunately those two coaches we met were very good and young but couldn’t speak English — personally I liked them.
Another problem was that we didn’t have time. It was already toward the later part of June. We had the Asian Cup in the middle of July. We should have waited until the end of Euro 2004 to get the names of some good European coaches but that was another two months. The committee thought that we couldn’t wait that long because if we have a big problem in the Asian Cup then it will be more serious.
The committee thought that they should appoint a coach before the Asian Cup — that was the reason. Perhaps the decision was taken in too much of a hurry.
At the time, reports said that Metsu wasn’t appointed coach because of his financial demands. Was that true?
Between him and myself, the salary was more or less agreed.
Why didn’t it happen?
My opinion was that he was very nervous after receiving so many phone calls. His wife is from Senegal and I heard that she was also nervous after seeing the level of interest from the media. She had only lived in the Middle-East, not in other parts of Asia.
He must have given a reason
He was offered good money from another club
Bonfrere complained of a lack of support from the KFA. What would you say to that?
Maybe he compared the support that the KFA gave Hiddink. I told you that after 2002 we changed the regulations of the release dates for players.
He didn’t have good relations with some members of the committee — the chairman for example. He used to complain about it. The contract gives the coach lots of rights but he should consult with the committee for the selection of national staff and the selection of the national team.
He told me off the record, though since then he has said the same things on the record, that prior to the game with Germany in Dec. 2004, he was told by the committee not to select a certain striker.
Frankly speaking, I don’t think that is correct because I know the situation. Whenever the technical committee chairman wanted to speak to him, he asked me to accompany him.
The technical committee thought that there were a few good players that the coach should consider. For example, Park Chu-young wasn’t picked at the time and then Oh Bum-seok, who is now in the squad. Kim Young-chul was not picked at the time. These were players that many coaches in Korea thought were very good and were needed in the national team but they were never selected by the coach.
They just recommended the coach to look at these guys. For example, we had a very weak defence line so maybe this guy will be good or we need a good striker with good talent then we need this guy — Park Chu-young.
These were recommendations. They never said “if you don’t do this, we won’t like it.” They wanted the coach to look at these players.
If you are a coach and have been in a foreign country for a short time, don’t you think it would be difficult to refuse?
Hiddink never picked who he didn’t like. Advocaat didn’t.
Is it common for a committee to be so involved?
If you have a foreigner as coach, the committee members may think that the coach could not see the players. Many members were former coaches, they know some players from a long time ago. They thought that if the coach knew these players better, probably he’ll have more interest in the player.
They didn’t recommend so many players, just a few when they really thought it was necessary.
Could recommendations from the KFA side be pressure from a coach’s point of view — especially one in a foreign country?
Frankly speaking, maybe. He probably thought that it was a kind of pressure. He never said “no” but he never picked players because of this. I know him very well. If Hiddink or Advocaat didn’t like something, they said “no.” Bonfrere never said anything but he didn’t pick players because of it.
If he hadn’t resigned, would he have been fired?
I’m not sure. He had consulted with many people before he left and our committee was to have a meeting.
In your opinion, what would have happened?
I have nothing to do with the technical committee so I don’t know.
Anyway he left and you were the first person to meet Advocaat. He had only just joined the UAE less than two months before; do you think it’s acceptable to contact a coach that has just started a job with another nation?
It depends on his position and contract. I have known Pim for a long time, we had some contact. He wanted to become the coach of Korea as well, he was a kind of applicant.
I discovered that he was with Advocaat in the UAE so I sent him an e-mail asking if he can arrange a meeting between Advocaat and me. He said “yes.” Firstly, I asked him to check with Advocaat if he can negotiate, if he can be free.
I got the reply from Advocaat that he can leave the UAE at any time and without any penalty. The President of the UAE FA confirmed that both parties can do that — it was very strange for me.
The second thing was that Advocaat wanted to be at the World Cup — every coach wants this.
Did you talk to anybody else?
No. The committee decided to keep things secret.
Did you talk to Hiddink?
Not before Advocaat. We talked to Hiddink before Bonfrere. When I was in Europe, I spoke to Hiddink. He recommended one or two coaches.
Did you talk to Hiddink about returning as coach?
I knew that Hiddink would never come back to Korea. I met with Hiddink and his agent when he became our technical advisor and I knew exactly what he wanted. Many people say that he wanted to become coach again but we didn’t offer but that is not true.
His ideal was the Australian job. He wanted to go only to the World Cup finals but he didn’t want to be in the preliminary round.
Did you ever offer him the job?
We did but it was rejected from the beginning. Whenever I was in Europe we met together.
He thought that there was nothing left in Korea for him. He had everything that he wanted. Money? We can’t give him $3 or $4 million, he can get more money elsewhere. Fame? How can he get more here?
You asked him to return?
I asked him many times but I knew he would say no.
When did you ask him?
Even after the World Cup we asked him to stay but we knew that he wanted to return to Holland and PSV. Later we talked about 2006 but I knew that he didn’t want to come back so we made a contract for only a technical advisor.
He didn’t want to coach an Asian team in 2006 — Australia was a special case. He wanted to take care of the team for a very short period — just for the matches. Join the team for a few days and then go back to PSV.
In Asian countries like Korea, Japan and China, this is not possible. There needs to be training, it is not possible for the coach to come and sit on the bench and then leave.
In Australia, almost all the players were in Europe so he can have friendly matches and get the players together for some days and he is close to home and during FIFA dates there are no club games. It was a special case.
The Korean people, media and society wouldn’t accept such a situation.
What did you think of Advocaat as coach?
Technically, I cannot say but personally he was a very good man — kind, bright and open-minded. Always he tried to make the players happy — he was very co-operative.
Did the KFA ask him to stay?
We asked him. In our contract we had to declare our interest by June 15.
You did that?
Of course but he said that his wife didn’t like him to stay here. His wife wanted him to be around. He told me that between Holland and St Petersburg it is only two hours flight.
When did you decide to appoint Pim Verbeek?
In Korea, if we don’t make any decision and Advocaat announces his decision first, how do you think the media would react?
A few guys were saying it was too early but if we announce that Advocaat is leaving and we have no idea who will take over and there is a game in mid-August, what will they say?
Korean people try to be as late as possible. Japan announced the departure of the coach many months before the World Cup, England too, it is common.