The World Cup's Real Kick for Korea

Beyond the team's best-ever showing, the coach's insistence on favoring talent over seniority is just what the national culture needs

By Heesun Wee

In the minutes following Germany's win over South Korea in the World Cup semifinals on June 25 in Seoul, South Korean fans remained standing, singing and chanting as their national players went to each of the stadium's four sides, lined up, bowed, and saluted. An hour later, South Korean team coach Guss Hiddink climbed into the stands, and adoring fans mobbed him.

Korean education officials wasted no time announcing that images and information about the World Cup and the team will be featured in primary and secondary school textbooks. Meanwhile, the South Korean government has declared July 1 a national holiday to celebrate the team's success. Coach Hiddink, who is Dutch, may be granted Korean citizenship, while some supporters want a statue of him erected.

Wait a minute. Korea lost the match, right? Germany and Brazil go to the finals June 30 in Yokohama, Japan. So why are Koreans still so excited? They made it to the semifinal round of four -- the first Asian country to do so in the tournament's 72-year history. They'll vie for third place -- which would be another historic achievement -- against Turkey on June 29. South Korea's feat is more mind-boggling, considering that the country hadn't won a single game in five previous World Cup appearances.


  The team's success has thrilled its country, where soccer is close to the national pastime. While professional baseball is popular, most South Korean boys play soccer. My father grew up passing and kicking in North Korea on a patch of dirt with a cheap tennis ball, stuffed with cotton for some heft. "Soccer ball? We didn't see real soccer balls until after the [Korean] War," my dad says. Americans know who Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan are, but South Koreans also know names of soccer legends like Brazil's Pele.

Beyond the South Korean team's remarkable passing ability and stamina in this World Cup, there's the behind-the-scenes story of coach Hiddink, who revamped a soccer system that was hobbled by cronyism. For years, the Korean soccer-development program rewarded family ties, prestigious academic backgrounds, and seniority over talent. It's an ethos that still dominates much of Korean society -- from business to the government.

Hiddink, however, played by new rules. In contrast to past Korean coaches, he allowed young players in their 20s to participate with veterans in their 30s. Well-educated players from wealthy, connected families were dribbling balls with those from humbler backgrounds. Only a few years ago, older players reportedly ate their meals first, followed by younger teammates.


  So while South Korea's World Cup dream has ended, the lasting legacy of the team's phenomenal run may be a new patriotism among Koreans and even a shedding of some of the old ways of doing business and interacting with each other. Koreans are thinking that ability can matter most in the end -- not where you come from or who you know, explains Oh Moonsong David, a professor of international business and marketing at California State University at Los Angeles.

"This will have a very powerful impact on Korean businesses and society as a whole. There's no doubt managers and other Korean businesses probably will move closer to Western management that's based on performance rather than seniority," Oh says.

It's ironic that it has taken the leadership of Hiddink -- a foreigner -- to show Koreans another way of building the proverbial better mousetrap. "In a way, he pointed out one of the weakest points in Korea," says Choe Yong Ho, a University of Hawaii emeritus history professor. "But they couldn't have made a successful team under the old Korean leadership," he adds.


  For Americans, the concept that talent can be rewarded above other qualities is as familiar as breathing. The American dream is about succeeding with skill and hard work. But for Koreans, who live in a society rooted in Confucianism, getting ahead can be tricky stuff. That philosophy stresses conformity to a rigid social structure, a pecking order that dictates much of Korean culture.

That's precisely why South Koreans have been so stunned by -- and supportive of -- Hiddink and the national soccer team. He threw out Korea's old rulebook, and his team succeeded beyond the country's wildest dreams.

Hiddink was actually brought in as much to save face against longtime rival Japan as to turn around a long-suffering soccer program. South Korea and Japan are co-hosting the month-long World Cup. Given that Japan colonized Korea, often with brutal results, for 35 years ending with the conclusion of World War II in 1945, a lackluster performance by South Korea "would have been a national shame. They were desperate," says the University of Hawaii's Choe.


  Of course, a few soccer wins don't mean Korean business conglomerates, or chaebols, will suddenly flatten their vertical structures. "It's going to take time to sink in gradually," says Lee Chong Sik, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Lee and other Korea experts say the team's performance may eventually supersede the influence of the national protests and democratic movement of the 1980s, which led to a less authoritarian government and society. While that sometimes violent period had a great impact on Korea, the soccer's team run is a more positive, galvanizing force. When Ahn Jung Hwan fired his game-winning goal against Italy in overtime on June 18, sending the Korean team to the quarterfinals of eight teams, the striker seemed to prove that Koreans had it in them all along to succeed on the international stage.

The new "can do" optimism has flooded over Korea's borders to immigrants in the U.S. as well. The streets of Korean-American neighborhoods in New York City, from midtown Manhattan to Flushing in Queens, have been awash with young adults in "Be the Reds" T-shirts, the slogan of the Korean team cheerleaders. "Before the 2002 World Cup, I wasn't interested in soccer or Korea, I guess. South Korea is such a small country," says Annie Shin, 22, a graphic arts student from Flushing." Now, she says, "I'm so proud." So is a nation.

Wee is a BW Online reporter in New York

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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