Tactical style, leadership make Hong Myung-bo perfect fit as nat’l football team head coach: KFA

July 8, 2024

Hong Myung-bo, the newly named head coach of the South Korean men’s national football team, is the ideal fit for the job given his tactical philosophy and leadership skills, the sport’s top technical official said Monday.

Lee Lim-saeng, technical director for the Korea Football Association (KFA), detailed the reasons behind Hong’s appointment at a press conference, less than 24 hours after the 55-year-old tactician was announced as the new bench boss for the senior men’s squad.

Hong, who previously coached South Korea from 2013 to 2014, is signed through the 2027 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup, which will run from January to February that year in Saudi Arabia. His tenure will begin with the third round of the Asian World Cup qualifying tournament in September.

The top men’s coaching position had been vacant since the KFA fired Jurgen Klinsmann on Feb. 16, in the aftermath of South Korea’s elimination in the semifinals of the Asian Cup.

Lee said Hong had been one of three finalists, along with two foreign nationals, and beat them out thanks to his wealth of experience and proven leadership.

In particular, Lee cited Hong’s success with Ulsan HD FC, the two-time defending champions in the K League 1, using the kind of tactics that could bring out the best in the national team. That Hong had previously coached under-20 and under-23 national teams and had also worked in an administrative role for the national team was also a big plus, Lee added.

“Based on last year’s data, Ulsan played an efficient brand of football,” Lee said, noting that the club ranked first in the K League 1 in buildup and intensity of pressing but 10th among the 12 teams in distances covered. “Argentina won the 2022 World Cup in Qatar despite being near the bottom in distances covered. I think that is a lesson for South Korean football.”

To further bolster Hong’s tactical brilliance, Lee said he asked Hong to take on at least two assistant coaches from Europe.

“He accepted that,” Lee added. “If we can combine Hong’s experience and knowledge with those of European coaches, it can only help with connectivity between the senior team and underage national teams.”

As for Hong’s previous national team coaching stints, Lee said, “His experience with underage national teams and his broad knowledge of the technical and administrative sides of football will help him ensure continuity and connectivity between national teams.”

Lee also reserved high praise for Hong’s leadership skills. Hong has long been known as a no-nonsense, charismatic type of leader who is able to push the right buttons when handling strong personalities in the locker room.

“I felt his team-first mentality is what the national team needs at this point,” Lee said. “He has outstanding abilities to build a cohesive team.”

Though Lee didn’t identify the two foreign coaches he interviewed last week, it is widely believed former Greek national team head coach Gus Poyet and ex-Norwich City boss David Wagner were in the running.

Lee said Hong’s coaching resume, which includes the 2012 Olympic bronze medal, two K League 1 titles and two K League Coach of the Year awards, stacks up well against those two foreign candidates.

“While the foreign candidates have experience in major European competitions, and we respect their football philosophies, we felt there wouldn’t be enough time for them to put their fingerprints on our national team,” Lee said. “And we didn’t think their track records were clearly superior to that of Hong.”

Hong also had a built-in advantage of residing in South Korea. Klinsmann faced constant criticism for refusing to live year-round in South Korea, which would have allowed him to check on domestic league players more often, and Lee said the KFA wanted to avoid a repeat of that. One of the two foreign candidates had reservations about living in South Korea, Lee said.

National team coaches hired during a World Cup cycle are typically signed through the end of the big tournament. However, the KFA gave Hong an extra half-year beyond the 2026 World Cup.

“We wanted to give Hong enough time to build connections between the senior national team and underage national teams,” Lee explained. “We didn’t want to evaluate him based on short-term results.”

Lee said it has not been determined exactly when Hong would leave Ulsan HD and take over the national team. In the immediate term, Ulsan are scheduled to play K League 1 matches Wednesday and Saturday. The national team’s next set of matches will be in September for the third round of the World Cup qualification.

“Ulsan HD have provided so much help for the development of South Korean football, and we will let Ulsan determine the timeline,” Lee said. “However, it will be difficult for Hong to keep coaching Ulsan much longer.”

Mindful of criticism the KFA will face for poaching an active K League coach midseason, Lee offered an apology to fans of the league and of Ulsan HD.

“What can I really say? I am extremely grateful and also sorry that Ulsan have agreed to send coach Hong to the national team,” Lee said. “Especially to Ulsan supporters, I am really sorry. I will cheer for the club from now on.”

Lee’s apology didn’t assuage Ulsan fans.

Their official supporters’ club, the Cheoyong Warriors, released a statement on Instagram blasting the KFA for plucking Hong off their team.

“The KFA disregarded demands from us and other South Korean football fans. They were unable to come up with solutions or visions, and ended up filling their hole with a K League head coach, which is the worst possible conclusion,” the statement read. “We strongly condemn this decision, which has once again dealt a massive blow to football fans. Such a catastrophic choice by the KFA will surely lead to failure in the end. And even if this turns out to be successful, the KFA must not forget that it will have come at the expense of sacrifices by fans of Ulsan and other K League clubs, not because of any good the KFA has done.”