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South Korea warn against LVG, AVB rumours

South Korea
 By John Duerden

Martin Rennie's South Korean mission with second tier Seoul E-Land

Former MLS boss Martin Rennie took charge of Korean second tier side Seoul E-Land last year and is dreaming big.

Seoul 1988. Members of the international media were enjoying a few beers around the US military base in the Korean capital when word started to spread of a huge story. Calls were made, mouths were dropped and copies were written as one of the biggest scandals in Olympic history came to light.

27 years later the biggest sports story coming out of the huge stadium on the south bank of the mighty Han River is not a steroid-taking Ben Johnson but Martin Rennie and Seoul E-Land FC.

The Scot is building a brand new club that is winning games in Korea's second division and has his sights set higher than the almost finished Lotte Tower nearby that will be the fourth-tallest building in the world -- promotion to the top tier, domestic titles, success in Asia and more.

Rennie arrived in the summer of 2014 to become the club's first ever coach, helped by his connection with Lee Young-pyo as the former PSV Eindhoven, Spurs and Borussia Dortmund left-back had played under the 40-year-old tactician at Vancouver Whitecaps.

"I came because I had a unique opportunity to build a team," he told ESPN FC. "I did it once before in the US and it was successful and we won championships and did well."

It went very well. After impressing with Cascade Surge in 2005, Rennie was offered a job in the USL Second Division -- the third tier in America -- with new club Cleveland City Stars.

He took the Ohioans to second in the first season in 2007. He moved to the first division a year later with Carolina Rail Hawks and won the NASL title in 2010.

Unsurprisingly, bigger boys came calling and it was time for the MLS. Taking over the struggling Vancouver in 2011, Rennie led them to the play-offs and was fired at the end of the 2013 season after narrowly failing to make the same stage.

"When the chance to be there from the start came along again, especially with a big corporation behind the team, it was too good an opportunity to turn down," said Rennie. "You can influence the values and the vision of the club, the culture, the recruitment, the way the team plays, the staff, everything. If you do well, you leave a legacy for the long-term."

E-Land has grown considerably since starting out as a small clothing store in the north-west of Seoul in 1980. But the company is not of the size of Samsung or Hyundai, conglomerates that have owned K-League teams for years.

But it is big enough to provide stable financial support. At the same time, the growing company is eager to engage and interact with the local community in a way that does not happen too often in Korean football.

"Coming into a different culture in Asia, E-Land have been brilliant to work with and they have really supported me," said Rennie. "This is E-Land's first venture into the sports market but they have had success elsewhere. It is not just about what happens on the pitch but the community."

Seoul E-Land FC are currently in third place in the Korean second division. Photo credit: Seoul E-Land FC

Having viewed the MLS model, Rennie has some creative inputs about improving Korean leagues. "Korean football standards are very high," he said. But the K-League could learn from the MLS in sales and marketing.

"MLS is a really well run business, the soccer specific stadiums have made a huge difference to the popularity of the league. K-League is still playing in huge athletic stadiums that kill the game atmosphere. Much could be improved in this area in Korea."

On the pitch, Seoul are challenging for promotion and the way they play has been praised by the media. Here is a young, internationally experienced and ambitious coach who is, so far, getting results. E-Land currently sit in third place.

Rennie has impressed by turning defensive midfielder Joo Min-kyu into a striker who has scored 16 goals in 20 games. There has been speculation about how he would do in the top tier and perhaps even higher up the football ladder.

"I do think about the national team," said Rennie. "I have been here for a year now. The Korean players are hard-working, organised and defend extremely well. If they could become more attack-minded and believe in themselves, then they could go places. The ability is there not just to qualify for major tournaments but to do well.

"The Korean players have excellent technique, incredible cardiovascular fitness, great professionalism and game understanding. In the U.S. the players don't have such high levels of technique or cardiovascular fitness, but they have higher levels of confidence and more explosiveness... Koreans lack a little confidence and creativity in the final third."

This is a long-running problem in the country. Even commuters on Seoul's excellent subway system would look up from their phones in hope of an answer to the question on how possession can be turned into chances then goals.

Watching the national team can be frustrating. "It can be changed," said Rennie. "Look at Joo Min-kyu. Also at Cho Won-hee, who scored once in his career before he came here and has already scored five for us."

Rennie has impressed by turning defensive midfielder Joo Min-kyu into a striker who has scored 16 goals in 20 games. Photo credit: Seoul E-Land FC

So what is the missing link that has eluded Korea for so long? "I can't tell you," said Rennie. "Most of these are psychological though there are some technical and tactical aspects too. But it is a secret you can't reveal."

Rennie is more open when discussing how Korea stacks up to his former league. "The standard of football in the K-League and in MLS is very high. In the K-League, almost all the players are Korean where MLS has players from many more nationalities.

"The K-League has a more defensively structured style with teams who are very hard to break down. That creates great danger in the counter attack.

"There are less difference making players in the K League than there are in MLS -- for example when I was coaching in MLS players like Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Thierry Henry and others could make a big impact on the game. There are less marquee names in the K-League, but many top players that are not well known outside of Asia."

At the moment, something similar could be said about Seoul E-Land but Rennie aims to change that. "The main thing is to build the foundation of the club so it becomes a strong one for many years."

The club's home stadium offers historical lessons when it comes to trying to get success the easy and quick way. "We want to get promotion as soon as possible but we won't take short cuts to get there. That success is just the first step."

For Rennie and Seoul E-Land, it is a marathon, not a sprint.

Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.


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