Interview: Dominoqq Korea’s 2002 Hero And New Busan Boss Hwang Sun-Hong
August 19, 2021
Busan boss Hwang Sun-hong
It had to happen sooner or later. It was only a matter of time before one of the 2002 World Cup heroes took the reins of a K-League team. It is perhaps fitting that the man who scored the first goal in South Korea’s unforgettable run to the semi-finals of the world’s biggest sporting event is the first one to try his luck in the domestic league.
Perhaps it is also fitting that the goal, which came against Dominoqq Poland in front of 55,000 delirious fans, was scored at Busan’s Asiad World Cup Stadium. For it is in that same cavernous arena where Hwang will start his coaching career with local team Busan I’Park. The 39 year-old has a tough challenge ahead.
Large attendances are a rarity at the stadium these days as the club has struggled in recent years. Four-time champions Busan may be but the latest came in 1997 and the top has been slipping increasingly out of sight. 2007 saw the south coast team finish next to bottom. It is a long way back to the summit but Hwang, who played over 100 international appearances in a career that spanned 14 years, was the top scorer in Japan’s league in 1999 and played 18 months under Guus Hiddink, has a background that at least provides a well-placed base camp.
On a snowy Seoul morning, I took the bullet train to the meet Hwang at Busan’s clubouse in the north of the sprawling south coast city.
You had a successful time in Japan. What did you learn from the J-League?
Korean and Japan are rivals but their football styles have many differences. In the J-League, I remember feeling it was more technical and nice to watch.
It’s hard to say which is better. Technically, the K-League needs to improve. In the end, good football is winning football. J-League teams are more likely to give the fans the kind of football they want. Japanese players don’t waste energy and can attack quickly with fast passing. Korean players’ strong point is speed and aggression and if they can match these qualities with the J-Leagues strengths then Korean football will develop more.
How has the K-League changed since you retired?
When I played there was almost no team using four at the back. It was all man-to-man marking and very rough. Now players are trying to play more advanced and European-style football. There are many teams that use man-to-man and zonal. Also, the stadium facilities improved a lot after the Word Cup; It looks like we are moving towards more technically developed football.
Is it more difficult to score goals in Korea than Japan?
I think it’s more difficult. When I played in Japan, J-League teams used three and four at the back. Defenders were less active than Korea and used less man-to-man marking so for me, the J-league was easier than the K-League. I don’t mean that the standard was lower, it was just the perfect situation for me as a striker.
What was the biggest thing that Hiddink changed?
I think it was ball possession. In the past we wasted our energy with unnecessary passes and chasing around after defenders. Hiddink stressed that we should keep the ball safely and try to gain control of the game. Even after five years, I still am influenced by that.
Some people overseas say that Korea only reached the semi-finals with home advantage and favourable refereeing. What do you think about that?
Of course, playing at home is an advantage but I don’t think the referees were biased. We got results through trying our best and lots of effort. We trained hard and worked hard. Compared to before, there was much more competition for places. We grew more confident that we could win and did so fairly and squarely.
When the competition started did you really believe you could reach the semi-finals?
No. Our first target was to win our first World Cup game. Our second target was to reach the second round. When we did so, that was success for us. I didn’t expect to reach the semi-final.
Hwang (18) celebrates his goal against Poland at the 2002 World Cup
How did you feel when you scored against Poland?
I can’t explain. It was a goal I had waited so long for. It was a goal that had deep meaning for Korea. I can’t express the feeling. I was so happy.
How did the 2002 World Cup change Korean football?
First, with Hiddink in charge, we could get many games against top class opposition like Czech Republic, England and France. Through these tests, we learned that if we play a little more coolly and ruthlessly against the big teams that we would be OK.. That was a big benefit.
What lessons do you feel Korean football has forgotten since then?
That of team balance. Through training, we learned how to save our energy and reduce unnecessary effort. We learned how to play much more efficiently and effectively and how to achieve more with less energy.
You scored goals everywhere you went. What was the secret to your success?
I had a goalscoring instinct but I also studied a lot. Training is very important but even when I was taking it easy, I was always thinking about how to score goals. When I, or somebody else, scored, I would often watch the video and think about what had happened and why it had happened. Thinking about the game is the way to be a success. These days, players sometimes lack that.
Can the goalscoring instinct be taught?
Strikers are born with the difficult art of scoring goals but by trying hard, it can be developed. Of course, constant effort is needed. With study, thinking and awareness, you can’t suddenly have an instinct for goal but you can reduce the failure rate. With thorough preparation, you can increase your goalscoring rate.
Why do Korean strikers struggle to score goals?
Of course, it is a striker’s job to score goals but it is also a problem for the whole team. It is not the problem of one player but means that there are many things that need to be changed. For example, if long passes or crosses don’t improve in quality then it will become increasingly difficult to score.
You spent a year in England recently –where?
Reading. English teams don’t open their training to the public. Reading then had Seol Ki-hyeon and were generous to Koreans. As you know, the Premier League is very energetic and has lots of appeal for fans.
Do Korean fans overrate the Premier League?
Perhaps that is true. Objectively, the Premier league is the leader of world football but it doesn’t match the Korean situation well. Our fans also need to lose their prejudice that English football is the best and Korean football is nothing.
What kind of coach will you be? Strict…?
I don’t want to be that kind of coach. I want to be a rational coach. A family atmosphere is very important. As the coach has no experience, I don’t know if my methods are correct. But I want to make a team with one mind and one voice. More than having a team that is a high-pressure team, I would like a spontaneous team.
If Busan players enjoyed late-night drinking sessions similar to some Korean players at the 2007 Asian Cup, how would you handle the situation?
To maintain team discipline, I would carefully judge the situation and impose a heavy punishment. Of course, there is time for all of us to have a drink. But timing is important –during the season or the day before a game, then that situation would be a big problem.
Did that happen during the 2002 World Cup?
Why did you join Busan?
Busan was a great team but recently results have been good. There hasn’t been much talent and the situation was tough. However, the club is trying to try for a new start and there have been many changes. I also feel that that it is a worthy challenge.
What’s the target for Busan in 2008?
Last season Busan was 13th and found it tough to score. First of all, we need to increase our scoring capability. I especially have in mind our home form. If we can move up to the middle-ranking K-League teams then that will be a success. However, I don’t want to make too many plans at the moment.
Is there money for new players?
The club handles that side of things so I don’t know. At the moment, the level of players is satisfactory so there is no problem.
How can you get more fans to come to the stadium?
The most important things is through our performances. We need to strengthen our weak points. The fans are far from the pitch so we have a plan to install some seating right next to the pitch so they will be able to enjoy the action much more. So now we are ready to make a favourable situation for the fans and know we have play better and attract the fans to the stadium.
Would you like to move? To Gudeok Stadium for example?
I really hope that we could have our own stadium. It is my fervent desire that Busan will be able to play games in front of more fans in the future. We will try little by little. First, we installed seats by the pitch so at the moment it’s unreasonable to move to Gudeok. Actually we looked into moving back to Gudeok but as it’s such a complicated problem, we decided to keep using Asiad Stadium.
What advice have you received from your fellow coaches?
They all advised me not too hurry. I am a new coach so there will be times when your plans and the reality is different, so don’t put pressure on yourself. When you are under pressure, many kinds of problems can occur and you need to think wisely. I heard that many times.
Is trading Ahn Yong-hak for Ahn Jung-hwan a fair one?
Ahn Yong-hak is a good player and I don’t need to tell you about Ahn Jung-hwan. Last season, Busan conceded 39 goals and scored just 20. So we have to increase our firepower. I am very positive about the transfer of Ahn Jung-hwan.
Can Ahn score goals here? He didn’t at Suwon.
Busan is much better for Ahn than Suwon. There is less mental pressure on Ahn at Busan. From now, the important thing is the players desire. I totally believe in the whole of the team, not only Ahn Jung-hwan. If he returns to peak condition then he can score more goals here than he did at Suwon.
As you are a former striker, can you help Ahn?
That’s right. But Busan is not just for Ahn Jung-hwan so it’s hard to focus on him but after training, I will help him if I can. As his senior, we can talk and I can advise him about technique. I have played with Ahn Jung-hwan and I know what his game lacks and his weak point.
There has been a lot of press attention focused on you and Ahn. Are you worried about that?
It has not been easy. If there are big expectations then isn’t there a big chance of disappointment? Excessive expectations can put pressure on me, Ahn and the other players. But we are professionals. It is not just about Ahn and me, the whole team team needs to know how to react positively to pressure and tension.