Coach apologizes for missing out on Olympic football qualification, calls for system overhaul

April 29, 2024

The head coach of the underachieving South Korean men’s under-23 national football team on Saturday apologized for the country’s failure to qualify for the Paris Olympics, while also calling for sweeping changes to operations of the program.

Hwang returned home from Qatar, where South Korea suffered an 11-10 loss to Indonesia on penalties in the quarterfinals of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U-23 Asian Cup in Qatar Thursday night. With the AFC tournament also serving as the Asian qualifiers for Paris, South Korea had to finish in the top three in Qatar to grab a spot in France.

By being eliminated in Qatar, South Korea will miss out on the Olympics for the first time in 40 years.

“I’d like to apologize to our fans. The responsibility solely lies with me as head coach,” Hwang told reporters at Incheon International Airport, just west of Seoul. “But these are players that have to keep growing, and they did their best under some difficult circumstances. I hope people will encourage them, and not criticize them so much.”

Asked what needs to be done for South Korea to avoid another misstep in the future, Hwang pointed to the operational system for the U-23 program.

Hwang took over the program in September 2021. Though he was signed through the 2024 Paris Olympics, the Korea Football Association (KFA) subjected Hwang to a midterm performance review after the 2022 Hangzhou Asian Games, which were postponed by one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hwang passed that test after leading South Korea to the gold medal at the Asiad. But the coach said having to build the team up for the Asian Games left him little time to prepare for the Olympic qualifiers.

“I think U-23 coaches must be put in charge for four years (without midterm reviews). If their job security is dependent on the Asian Games, then they can only focus on the Asian Games at first,” Hwang said. “This may sound like an excuse, but after the Asian Games, there isn’t much time left to get ready for the Olympics. In the current structure, it’s difficult for us to dominate Asian countries in the Olympic qualifiers. We have to have long-term plans, or we will fall further behind our competition.”

In the buildup to the AFC U-23 Asian Cup, Hwang briefly had to juggle extra responsibilities as caretaker manager for the senior national team. The KFA fired Jurgen Klinsmann after South Korea’s semifinal loss at the AFC Asian Cup in February, and asked Hwang to hold the fort for two FIFA World Cup qualifying matches in March.

The senior squad had a win and a draw in home-and-away matches against Thailand. South Korea’s U-23 team, meanwhile, played in an invitational tournament in Saudi Arabia without Hwang.

Hwang denied doing double duty had any major impact on South Korea’s showing at the U-23 Asian Cup, repeating that it’s ultimately his responsibility that the country didn’t qualify for the Olympics.

The KFA is still searching for the full-time replacement for Klinsmann. Earlier this month, Chung Hae-sung, the KFA official in charge of coaching hiring as head of the National Teams Committee, admitted Hwang is one of 11 candidates for the job. Chung even praised Hwang’s leadership for guiding the senior squad through some turbulent times in March, only weeks after the dismissal of Klinsmann.

Hwang’s candidacy, though, appears to have absorbed a big blow with the U-23 team’s early exit in Qatar. Asked about his thoughts on being up for the senior coaching position, Hwang said, “It’s not something I can decide. I am just exhausted right now and I want to take some time off.”

Hwang vehemently denied reports that he had an interview with a senior KFA official for the senior national team position during the U-23 tournament in Qatar.

“That’s ridiculous. I am not such a coward,” Hwang said, his voice rising. “I always do the best I can in my current position. I never do things behind people’s back just to take care of my next step. I can tell you that with certainty.”