Hong Myung-bo sees nat’l team coaching job as ‘final challenge of my football life’

July 10, 2024

Ulsan HD FC head coach Hong Myung-bo said Wednesday he has decided to leave his club for the South Korean men’s national team because he saw it as “the final challenge of my football life.”

Hong made the remark following Ulsan’s K League 1 match against Gwangju FC at Munsu Football Stadium in the southeastern city of Ulsan.

Hong had a prematch media availability earlier in the day, his first media appearance since being named the new head coach for the men’s national team on Sunday.

Hong’s hiring came as a surprise to many, because Hong had publicly rejected offers from the Korea Football Association (KFA) on multiple occasions in the past — as recently as June 30, only a week before the KFA’s announcement of his appointment.

After declining to address the national team issue in the prematch session, Hong, 55, discussed his sudden change of heart at length after Ulsan lost to Gwangju 1-0.

Hong previously coached South Korea from 2013 to 2014, and his short stint ended unceremoniously with the team’s elimination in the group stage at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Hong said Wednesday he was at first afraid of taking over the national team again because of his failure from a decade ago.

Wednesday marked the 10th anniversary of the press conference where he announced his resignation from the national team. Hong referred to the time after the 2014 World Cup as “the toughest period of my life” and added, “Honestly, I didn’t want to go back there, knowing what could happen at the end.”

He also said it was “really painful” to see his name getting thrown around as a candidate against his wish since the KFA began its coaching search in February, following the dismissal of Jurgen Klinsmann.

“But then something inside me started to emerge. My competitive fire was fueled and I wanted to tackle that challenge,” Hong said. “I thought this could be the final challenge of my football life. I wanted to build a really powerful squad.”

Hong coached Ulsan to back-to-back K League 1 titles in 2022 and 2023. Though they dropped from second to third place following Wednesday’s loss, they are still just two points behind the leaders, Pohang Steelers, with 16 matches to play.

Hong said he has been having a lot of fun coaching Ulsan players, but he felt he had to turn a new chapter at this point in his career.

“Ultimately, I decided I had no choice but to throw myself away,” Hong said. “There’s only Korean football inside me, and nothing else. That’s how I changed my mind.”

Lee Lim-saeng, the KFA’s technical director who was in charge of the hiring process, traveled to Europe last week to interview two international candidates for the national team position, Guy Poyet of Uruguay and David Wagner of Germany. He returned home Friday morning and then met with Hong later the same night to persuade the South Korean tactician to change his mind.

Hong, tied for the all-time South Korean lead with 136 caps as a legendary defender, accepted the offer the following morning.

Ulsan played Friday evening, and Hong had told reporters beforehand that he had no plans on meeting Lee and he hadn’t heard from any KFA official regarding a potential job offer. But with Lee having waited for Hong outside the coach’s house for a couple of hours Friday night, Hong said he couldn’t simply turn the official away.

Hong said Lee sold him on the idea that Hong would be just the right coach to establish connectivity between national teams in different age groups and put the KFA’s recent set of new ideas into practice.

“He told me about the national team’s technical philosophy, and with my previous experience in administration, I have a lot of interest in that subject,” said Hong, who served as KFA’s executive director from 2017 to 2020. “And there is only so much administration can do. The most important thing is to execute those ideas on the field, and I think the head coach of the senior national team is the person to do that.”

Hong said he is “a much different coach” now than he was 10 years ago.

“I was just starting out as coach back then. I obviously still have ways to go, but I have some K League experience under my belt. This has been an important period in my coaching career,” Hong said. “I’ll have to work even harder. There are many great players for the national team, but we play a team sport. If we can add dedication and sacrifices on top of these players’ talent, then we will have tremendous power.”

During Wednesday’s prematch presser, Hong touched upon Ulsan fans’ reaction to his decision to take the national team job. The club’s supporters at first directed their wrath at the KFA for poaching their coach midseason, especially with Ulsan looking to win their third straight K League 1 title. And then they expressed anger at Hong for reneging on his earlier assurance that he would stay put in Ulsan and fans didn’t have to worry about his departure.

“I absolutely understand where they come from,” Hong said. “Whatever emotions they may be feeling, I think they’re right.”

Fans booed Hong when his name was called during the prematch introduction through the PA system. About a dozen banners taking shots at Hong were hung on the rails in the stands. One said, “Myung-bo the Liar,” and another read, “The Worst Coach We’ve Seen.” One banner mocked Hong as being “Pinocchi-Hong,” after the classic Disney character whose nose grows with each lie he tells.

After the match, Hong and his players stood in front of Ulsan supporters at one end of the pitch to acknowledge them. Angry fans hurled obscenities at Hong, and dozens of them chanted, “Hong Myung-bo, get out!”

Hong said it was “all my fault” that fans’ cheers turned to jeers.

“I didn’t want to leave the club this way. I am really sorry to Ulsan fans,” Hong said. “I’ve had a great time at Ulsan, thinking only about my players, our fans and football. I’d like to apologize to our supporters once again.”

Ulsan will next host FC Seoul on Saturday. South Korea’s next match will be in September during the third round of the Asian qualification for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, and it has not been determined exactly when Hong will take the national team reins.

“I don’t know how much longer I will be here. I will have to speak with the club,” Hong said. “I’d love to stick around until the weekend. But the KFA hasn’t given me any deadline.”