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Dec 10, 2011

Cho time over

Was it the bidding of shadowy outside influences, a consequence of a power struggle that threatens to tear the Korea Football Association apart or the simple firing of a coach after a bad result? The dismissal of national team boss Cho Kwang-Rae has sent South Korean football into a tailspin and just where it will end nobody can say, but one thing is for sure: it is going to run and run.

The whole affair started badly. According to Cho, just minutes after meeting Hwangbo Kwan, the newly-appointed chairman of the KFA's technical committee which oversees the national team, he was fired. Just minutes after that he returned home to see KBS, the state-funded television network, broadcasting the news to the nation two days before the KFA planned to do so. It was not the last time that the association was going to be labelled amateurish in the 48 hours that followed.

Ostensibly the dismissal is about last's month shocking loss in Lebanon in the penultimate game of the penultimate round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup. On a grey day in Beirut, Korea feebly fell to a 2-1 defeat against a team they had thrashed 6-0 just ten weeks previously. The Taeguk Warriors still top their group and need just a point at home against Kuwait in February to seal a place in the final ten, but criticism was fierce from fans and media dismayed to lose to a team then ranked 146th in the world.

That heightened existing concerns over Cho's stewardship. The former international took the reins in July 2010 after a successful tournament in South Africa when the team had reached the knockout stage for the first time on overseas soil. Cho had an appealing vision of fast-paced, attractive and attacking football, although he was criticised for stubbornness in attempting to stick to it at all costs and in almost every situation. His penchant for young players was popular and soon the national team was liberally sprinkled with teenagers and those not much older.

The youngest team at the Asian Cup in January performed pretty well, though finishing third in the continental meet is never going to be celebrated in Seoul. The football was, at times, very good and young stars such as Ji Dong-Won, Koo Ja-Cheol and Yoon Bitgaram impressed (the first two were soon in Europe and there have been suggestions that domestic players were becoming miffed with what they perceived as Cho's favoritism shown to overseas stars). The encouraging signs continued with friendly wins over Honduras, Serbia and Ghana. Things started to change, however, with a 3-0 loss at the home of closest rivals Japan in August. Cho said at the airport upon his return that it would never happen again, but events in Beirut were even worse than what the Korean media had called the 'Sapporo Disaster'.

If the KFA had made the decision in the immediate aftermath of the Lebanon loss, it would not have been met with universal agreement, even with the anger at the defeat, but the debate would have been about the football. The real question now is what changed in the three weeks that followed the final whistle in Beirut and Hwangbo's phone call to Cho.

According to Hwangbo, a man who has suddenly found himself at the centre of Korean football months after a short and unsuccessful spell as coach of FC Seoul, there were various factors. He said that the technical committee had been studying the games and had come to the conclusion that Cho had to be replaced in order to qualify for the World Cup. Not only that: sponsors were also putting pressure on the association to ensure that the team reached Brazil in 2014.

There certainly are nerves in the association over the financial costs of missing out on the World Cup. Seven successive appearances on the global stage mean that nobody can imagine not being one of the 32. Such pressures have been there in the past, however. Huh Jung-Moo took the team to the last 16 in South Africa but came close to the axe at a similar stage during qualification for 2010.

Hwangbo's statement should be shocking but in few countries does business have such a fundamental connection with football as in Korea. Hyundai, which owns two professional K-League teams, is an influential player off the pitch, too. The story of the growth of the company is fascinating. Its success is down to Chung Ju-Yung, a man of incredible work-rate and vision who started the company in 1946 and built it into a behemoth. He was also energetic in other matters and one of his many sons is Chung Mong-Joon. Chung the younger controls Hyundai Heavy Industries, the largest shipbuilder in the world, lost his post as FIFA vice-president earlier this year and stepped down as KFA boss in 2009 to become honorary president.

He still calls the shots, though, and during his 16 years as president, Chung ensured that the KFA has a Hyundai streak running through it - as strong as, if not stronger than, the traditional link between those at the top of Japanese football and Furukawa Electrics. If you want to go places at the KFA, it is useful to have a Hyundai background and it is essential to have the backing of Chung. The current president certainly has that and Cho Chung-Yeon is going to stand for re-election early in 2013.

He is going to be challenged by Ha Sung-Pyo, who works in Korea's Football Research centre and ran Cho close in the 2009 election. Ha is outspoken about how the KFA is run and has promised to continue being so. In simple terms, and for want of a better expression, he is going to be the progressive candidate who stands against the established conservatives of the Chung camp. Coach Cho was seen as a key ally of Ha and some are now wondering whether the trigger for his dismissal was not Lebanon-linked but due to Ha's much more recent announcement that he was going to stand for the post of KFA president. If this theory is true then the decision to fire the coach is a way to cut the influence of this group, with the loss in Beirut providing the opportunity to do so.

All knew that coach Cho's relationship with the KFA was not smooth. In the summer, he clashed with former technical committee chairman Lee Hoi-Taek in a dispute between the Olympic and senior teams over the issue of player availability. Cho got his way and Lee, a powerful figure and supporter of Chung, was on his way. Hwangbo is Lee's replacement but seems to have little of the same weight. He is now the man who performs the assassination and takes the flak at press conferences (president Cho, who spends two hours before starting work every morning studying English in his office, couldn't find the time to attend the official KFA press conference that confirmed the dismissal).

The other Cho, the one with time on his hands to do lots of interviews, has come out fighting, promising not to go away and to keep telling anyone who will listen that real football people have to get to grips with the people really running Korean football. It is a call that was heard by protestors outside KFA House in downtown Seoul. Forty people do not an Arab Spring make but they certainly added to the discomfort felt in the association.

The news that number one replacement Choi Kang-Hee, coach of champions Jeonbuk Motors, has already turned down the job won't have lightened the mood. Olympic coach and 2002 captain Hong Myong-Bo is another in the frame but has said that he is not interested, while former assistant coach Afshin Ghotbi is unlikely to leave J-League club Shimizu S-Pulse to put himself in the middle of what has quickly become a messy situation.

Talk of a Guus Hiddink return surfaced just as rapidly. The appointment of the currently available Dutchman is the one thing that could have the majority of fans and media smiling again and could be the best way for the KFA to shake off some of the mud that has been slung its way.

Not all, though. Some of it is going to stick and ensure that the election that is not much more than a year away is going to be heated. It is also going to be much more closely followed than ever before and much more crucial in determining the future of Korean football than the game against Kuwait in February, regardless of who is standing on the sidelines.

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