RIO DE JANEIRO ― With the recent resignation of coach Hong Myung-bo and the exit of Luis Scolari after the utter destruction of his squad in the World Cup’s final stages, it’s been a dramatic few days both in Korea and Brazil as their football associations scramble for answers on how to fix it all.
Humiliating defeats ― Korea to Algeria 4-2 in the group round and Brazil to Germany 7-1 in the semifinals ― exposed their squads’ weaknesses as overly dependent on star players with vulnerable defenses that their opponents effectively picked apart.
These losses on the international playing field serve as a wakeup call to Korea and Brazil that their current fundamentals are in dire need of change.
Luckily for them, they already have a role model: After 22-year-old Bayern Munich forward Mario Goetze’s skillful performance Sunday won his team the title, Germany is being showered with praise as a shining example of successful reform.
Germany’s coach Joachim Loew emphasized that this victory was the well-deserved product of over 10 years of hard work, ever since the German Football Association declared a makeover after the national squad’s wipeouts in the 2000 and 2004 Euro Cups.
The depth of this year’s roster ― filled with crafty DFB-trained players including Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil, Borussia Monchengladbach’s Christoph Kramer and Chelsea’s Andre Schuerrle who are versatile both as a team and individually ― demonstrates what quality investment in youth football can do.
The DFB has rebuilt its youth academies from scratch with over $80 million a year since 2001, teaching high-potential players new tricks and techniques that would give them the upper hand in the changing game. Pro clubs became required to set up quality-monitored academies to train youth, and trainers went around to schools to coach the coaches. Korea’s own star midfielder Son Heung-min of Bayer Leverkusen dropped out of FC Seoul’s U-18 team at age 16 to join Hamburg’s youth academy, and has stayed in Germany since.
Now chock with homegrown talent, the Bundesliga is one of the world’s top leagues, with seven of the winning squad being part of 2013 UEFA Champions League-winning FC Bayern Munich. Korea’s World Cup players Ji Dong-won, Hong Jeong-ho, Park Joo-ho and captain Koo Ja-cheol also ply their trade in Germany.
Football associations, of course, are well aware of the importance of youth development, but pressure for short-term results over long-term investments is one of many stumbling blocks toward reform.
Brazil’s Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo said Monday that while his country had made important efforts to modernize the structure and legislation of their beloved sport, he lamented a “football colonialism” that discourages youth from being fostered at home, instead signing to elite European clubs that are “witness to the frailty and weakness of the South American clubs.”
“Our legislation prevents these children from being treated professionally here in Brazil,” he said, explaining that poor parents would sign on with the rich clubs to bring up their sons. “So since they can’t do that here in Brazil, they transfer … to Europe, where they are welcome, they have more favorable situations.”
Under fire for Korea’s poor showing at the World Cup, Korea Football Association vice president Huh Jung-moo pointed out last week ― before himself stepping down alongside Hong ― that Korea’s environment still lacks a solid framework to develop young players.
“We are working hard to realize a youth soccer program that fits Korea’s circumstances and one that will play a key role in the future of Korea’s football. Regrettably, with the exception of players in the 17-22 age group, players lack an environment where they can develop their skills,” he said.
In 2013, the KFA launched an exploration team to seek advice from German, French and other European football associations. This year it is piloting its Golden Age program to foster youth development for kids ages 11-15 with a focus on fundamental skills and creativity.
“If we come up with a policy for the youth in that critical age group, we will have taken an important step toward preparing for the World Cup,” he added. “What we are working toward cannot be achieved in one day, but requires patience.”
Sports analysts point out that physical fitness, cohesion and versatility play a larger role in today’s football than before. Competitive teams must keep up with changes. And as Asian Football Confederation president Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa said last month after every AFC team left Brazil winless, Asia must accept its shortcomings and adapt to the changes, because the world won’t wait.
Some lessons are more painful than others to learn, and Korea can take away more from this World Cup than criticism of its own devastating performance. If Korea wants to be a serious footballing presence and relive its Guus Hiddink-led 2002 semifinal glory more than once in a generation, it needs more than famous international coaches coming in just to win a tournament.
While each country certainly faces its own distinct challenges, Germany has provided a model for football associations around the world. The effects of long-term investments in youth education have been made clear, and hopefully Germany’s example will encourage Korea to further support its youth development program.
By Elaine Ramirez, Korea Herald correspondent
Moon Young-hoon in Seoul contributed to this article. ― Ed.