Korea’s Pohang Steelers bid farewell to foreign playersBy David Slatter Mar 10, 2013 7:13PM UTC
Is heart-warming local pride or cold, hard cash behind Korean club’s decision to drop outside talent?
Leagues across Asia are becoming increasingly big draws for the world’s soccer/football (delete as geographically applicable) talent. Korea’s K-League may not yet have the financial pulling power of China or the Middle East, but it can still attract talent from all over the globe.
The K-league (now confusingly titled K-League Classic) has 37 foreign players registered this year spread across the 14 clubs in the Korean top flight. The KFA tries to keep these numbers in check by limiting each team to four foreign players per team, of which one must be an Asian (AFC) player. However, teams frequently try to skirt these rules and there seems to be a constant search for loopholes. Foreign players have been top scorers in the league for four of the past five seasons, and usually feature heavily in the ‘team of the year’ awards. Overall the tendency is clearly for Korean team to grab as many foreign players as allowed, and then use them prominently.
Pohang are set to buck this trend this season after unloading all of their non-Korean players. These actions are particularly surprising as two foreign players were the clu’bs top two goal scorers last season. They were hardly dead weight.
So what’s going on?
Some media, perhaps at the behest of Pohang, have been trying to tell the story as a heart-warming, local-pride tale that paints the club as Asia’s answer to clubs like Chivas in Mexico or most famously the Basque team Athletic Bilbao in Spain. These teams have been among the more successful in their respective leagues, and their unique hiring policies have certainly made them marketable and cultivate a loyal fan-base. Pohang’s adoption of this philosophy may be noble, but it seems the transition could have been smoother. There is a feeling that the foreign players have been pushed out rather unceremoniously. One such ousted star, Derek Asamoah, took to Facebook to make his feelings clear:
In truth Pohang’s motivations seem more pragmatic than philosophical. The answer to the ‘what’s going on?’ question may simply be money. Pohang is one of many clubs in the K-League to be owned/backed by a Korean conglomerate. Pohang’s happens to be Steel Giant POSCO. Feeling the global economic pinch, POSCO cut the Steelers budget this year. It is this that head coach Hwang has admitted has been the motivation for some of the changes.
Seems simple enough right? However, when the transfer window opened in December Pohang were set to splash the cash by offering almost $1,000,000 for a Belgian Kevin Oris. It seems to be a ‘chicken or the egg’ situation. Did the money run out, hence the decision to offload foreign players? Or was the political decision made and therefore the bid withdrawn and foreign players pushed out?
Pohang’s decision comes at a particularly risky time. This season will be the first in recent times to feature relegation for the teams in the bottom two places. Having finished a respectable third last year the Steelers may not consider themselves in danger, but with their tight budget, loss of two top scorers, and import-less team their fans must worry about sliding closer to the danger zone. The season has just started so we have a long wait to find out how well Pohang’s new policy will work.