No-nonsense tactician tasked with bringing charismatic leadership to nat’l football team

July 8, 2024

In a brief meeting with reporters Friday, Korea Football Association (KFA) President Chung Mong-gyu fielded questions about the lingering coaching vacancy at the men’s senior national team.

The KFA had been under fire for its inability to find a replacement for Jurgen Klinsmann after firing the German coach on Feb. 16. South Korea leaned on two caretaker managers to finish out the second round of the Asian qualifying tournament for the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

Amid speculation that Chung had been favoring a foreign-born coach while others within the KFA pushed for a homegrown coach, the KFA honcho said tactical acumen wasn’t on the top of the list of qualities he wants in the new bench boss.

“Ultimately, the ability to bring the team together is the most important aspect,” Chung said. “It will be up to the coaching staff to handle the tactical side of things.”

Then on Sunday, the KFA announced its appointment of Hong Myung-bo as the new head coach of the men’s national squad, bringing in just the type of charismatic leader this program, left rudderless for five months, needs.

The 55-year-old has been at the helm of Ulsan HD FC in the K League 1 since late 2020, and led them to back-to-back championships in 2022 and 2023.

With a third consecutive title in sight for Ulsan — they were in second place through Saturday’s action, one point behind leaders Gimcheon Sangmu FC with 18 matches remaining — the KFA plucked Hong off the club and put him in charge of the men’s national team for the second time.

Hong first coached South Korea from 2013 to 2014. That first stint ended unceremoniously with South Korea’s elimination in the group stage of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Hong resigned after South Korea had a draw and two losses.

It was a stain of failure that threatened to blot out the rest of his otherwise successful coaching resume.

Only two years earlier, Hong had coached South Korea’s under-23 men’s team to the bronze medal at the London Olympics. They upset the all-British team in the quarterfinals and later defeated bitter rivals Japan in the bronze medal match. It remains the only Olympic football medal for South Korea.

He had also coached the men’s under-20 national team and took them to the quarterfinals of the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup, their first appearance in the last eight since 1991 when South Korea and North Korea fielded a joint team.

Along the way, Hong’s reputation as a no-nonsense leader from his playing days carried over into his coaching career.

Hong is viewed as not only one of the greatest players in South Korean football history, but also one of the world’s best from his generation — as attested by his inclusion in the FIFA 100 list in 2004.

Hong famously captained South Korea to the semifinals at the 2002 World Cup, which the country co-hosted with Japan. He also represented the country at three previous World Cups and finished his international career with 136 caps — tied for the most by any South Korean player.

As sweeper, Hong made up for his lack of pace or technical brilliance with vision and leadership skills that helped him keep defense corps under control.

And later as head coach, Hong has often preached the team-first mantra. Before taking over the national team the first time in 2013, and before the start of his Ulsan tenure in December 2020, Hong stressed that he wouldn’t tolerate anyone who dared deviate from the team goal.

Hong also instituted a dress code for the national team just over a decade ago, and players were required to report to training camps in suit and tie.

As leaders go, Hong and his predecessor, Klinsmann, may be polar opposites.

Klinsmann was quite the charmer during his one-year South Korean tenure, taking hard-hitting questions from the local media with a seemingly permanent smile on his face. Well before his Korean stop, Klinsmann had been known less as a brilliant tactical mind but more as a players’ coach who would be more inclined to put his arm around the shoulders of a slumping player than to draw up plays on the board.

Hong, on the other hand, has never been an overly expressive coach. He has tried hard in recent years to shed himself of the image of a difficult-to-approach coach — he once revealed that he had looked into Myers-Briggs personality test results for Ulsan players to better learn their idiosyncrasies — but reputations die hard.

Hong took Ulsan HD FC over the hump and to back-to-back titles in 2022 and 2023 by getting the most out of a team whose whole had been less than the sum of their parts in the past. Hong’s leadership, more so than his tactics, has been credited with molding Ulsan into a team, when a lesser coach would have left them merely as a collection of talented players.

There is no shortage of talent for the men’s national team, with Europe-based stars, such as Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur, Lee Kang-in of Paris Saint-Germain, Kim Min-jae of Bayern Munich and Hwang Hee-chan of Wolverhampton Wanderers, all having been mainstays.

Hong will once again be tasked with building a team out of that talent, something that Klinsmann wasn’t able to do.