On a warm Autumn’s day after wandering aimlessly around Seoul Forest taking pictures, I decided to have a cup of coffee before heading home. I entered one of the many cafes just before the sun started to set and was greeted with a warm smile from the guy behind the counter. He was not much older than me and had those thick dark framed glasses that every Korean guy seems to have. When I ordered my coffee in Korean the guy saw that as an opportunity to strike up a conversation with me. After I answered his question about where I was from, he said: “Nederlandu? Ahh, Eindhoven!” At that moment I could not exactly place why he didn’t mention Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, or even Utrecht, but he gave me the answer himself soon after: “PSV Eindhoven! I like Hiddinguuu!” I half tried to change the subject by saying that I came from a city near Amsterdam and support Ajax, but the harm had already been done. He ignored what I just said and went on about Hiddink. “Yes, Hiddingu” I replied eventually, accepting my defeat.
Yes, Guus Hiddink. The Dutch coach of the South Korean national team who was so successful at the World Cup of 2002 in Japan and South Korea by leading his team all the way to the semifinal and beating some top teams along the way. The success story of the Korean national football team at the 2002 World Cup is well known and documented. Just say “Italy” in South Korea and many Koreans become teary eyed and talk about the best victory in their football history. Hiddink is the cultural link between my country and South Korea, more so than Hendrick Hamel, who shipwrecked on Jeju island during the Joseon period (although they are both represented at the Dutch museum on Jeju island). Through the success of Hiddink, the Dutch became familiar with the Koreans and vice versa. Before that World Cup, I wasn’t really interested in Korea. Sure, I knew about the war between the North and the South, my father drove around in a Hyundai Lantra, and we had an LG DVD player, but that was about it. However, that would change that summer. Unable to qualify for the World Cup ourselves for the first time in 16 years, which was a tragedy all in itself (Jason McAteer, the bastard), the only Dutch link to the World Cup we had was Guus Hiddink, the coach of South Korea. So without a team of our own, the Dutch media focused on him.
I remember there was much sympathy for the South Korean team in the Netherlands. The passionate support of the Korean fans, dressed in red with all kinds of attributes, was similar to our own way of supporting our national team. We learned about the Korean fans cleaning up their own mess after supporting their team, which amazed the Dutch and started a discussion about our own short comings, because we always leave a huge mess after a game. The way South Korea played (attractive attacking football) captured the hearts of many Dutch people because of the similarity in style with our own national team. However, nobody (the South Koreans included) had any expectations at the time, because South Korea never won a game at previous World Cups and had been beaten by the Dutch team several times with a big goal margin. Also, in their preparation for the World Cup, they had lost two games with a 5-0 margin and Hiddink had been blamed for that, earning him the nickname “Five Versus Zero” in South Korea. The Korean press was extremely negative and asked for his resignation many times; asking themselves why they needed another foreigner, that didn’t understand Korean culture, in charge of their national team. To say it was a surprise to see South Korea progressing all the way to the semi-final and Hiddink becoming South Korea’s national hero is an understatement. It was nothing short of amazing, although they also had a little luck on their way with favorable decisions by the referees. All in all it was one of the best World Cups I have ever seen and our own team didn’t even play (although that’s not entirely true for me because Turkey played and reached the semis as well).
So how did Hiddink become so successful with a team, which had never won a single match on a World Cup? To find that answer we must first see how the Korean national team was organized before Hiddink took over. Korean culture is very suitable in many situations, but sadly running a professional football team isn’t one of them. The not-question-your-boss and don’t-take-any-risks-mentality and seniority-rules-over-all-culture kills competition in sports. Longstanding personal, familial, and school connections were factors in being selected for the national team and a head coach couldn’t ignore them. Older players had more privilege than younger ones (younger players even had to polish the shoes of their seniors) and often didn’t have to fear for their place in the team. Such a power imbalance isn’t healthy in a professional sports environment. In addition, the risk of losing in the preparation to the World Cup, and an early exit for the head coach, was being avoided by playing generally weaker teams, so it would appear that the Korean team was ready to play at the World Cup. Korean culture was a hindrance in starting with the best eleven and a leading cause in the poor performance of the Korean national team in every World Cup before 2002.
When Hiddink took over, he had asked and received plenary powers in operating the national team, including the selection of players, strategies, training, and support. He basically had complete control. The first thing Hiddink did was demanding domestic professional football teams to give up their top players to the national team for 18 months to prepare for the World Cup. He then did away with the risk avoidance; playing strong teams so his side would get used to the resistance they would experience at a World Cup (hence the 5-0 losses against France and the Czech Republic). Then he cut everybody out that didn’t agree to his way of working (that included coaching staff as well as players). Hiddink completely abolished traditional selection policies linked to personal, family, education, and social class affiliations within Korean society. He replaced some of the older players with talented youngsters and the older players that were left he convinced of his way of working. He told older players that they had to respect the younger players and not use their authority against them. He mixed older and young players at the dining tables (a practice that wasn’t common before). All these measures were taken to break the Korean culture within the team. He didn’t abolishing Korean culture completely though, but made use of elements that would give him an edge to improve the team. For instance, he made use of how bosses are never questioned by subordinates brilliantly. In matches during training, where Hiddink refereed, he made mistakes on purpose and asked his players if he was correct. Their culture prevented the players from responding honestly, but he saw in their eyes that they thought he was wrong. So he raised his voice and repeated if they felt they were wronged until they finally responded, and then told them they should put that feeling and energy in their football. This is how he fired up his players. He also did things that Korean coaches could never do, for example asking the president if his players would be exempted from military service so they could make a career as a professional football player (which the president arranged for them), all to get the players so fired up that they would do anything to win.
Hiddink’s method became a model for success in South Korea that was picked up not only by other coaches and other sport organizations, but also by a wide range of businesses. Many books about his methods became bestsellers in South Korea. It was seen as a potential way of advancing Korea’s global interests in all fields, including sport, politics, science, education, the economy, and citizenship. The fact that Hiddink, a foreigner, was able to challenge the authorities and even operate outside traditional cultural protocols signaled that Korean society was changing. It was called the Hiddink syndrome and has affected many aspects of Korean society. Since going through the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) financial crisis in the late 1990s, Korea’s society became more open due to government policy, but Hiddink, being the first foreigner awarded honorary national citizenship and the law even being changed for that, had an even bigger impact in accepting foreigners in Korean society. Public calls for him to be naturalized as a Korean citizen and the eventual introduction of special government legislation to award him honorary citizenship were unprecedented. It lead to awareness, discussion, and debate about the historically homogenous nature of Korea’s exclusive citizenship, particularly with respect to race and ethnicity.
However, that doesn’t mean that Korean society is suddenly very different after Hiddink’s success. Sure, it’s easier for a foreigner to get a visa and even attain citizenship, but South Korea is still a long way from being a multi cultural nation. In spite of all those copies of Hiddink’s method sold, Korean society is still very much top down and young people’s voices are still often ignored. The effect that Hiddink’s success had in the years after the 2002 World Cup has stagnated somewhat, when looking at election results, corruption scandals, and workplace culture of the past couple of years (the conservative party has won the presidency at parliamentary elections twice in a row). Rather, the success of Hiddink signals a particular point where the nation may have become more open to alternative ways of thinking about its past, present, and future with respect to citizenship and identity. However, I don’t think another stint of Hiddink taking charge of the national team will help South Korea forward again. Everything has its own time and place. For South Korean society to go forward again South Koreans need to change society themselves and, as in any other nation on this planet, that is a slow and difficult process.
I am a Dutch/Turkish ex-politician who moved to South Korea in 2012. Now I write about Korean society through my own experiences and I photograph the country as well. My writing has been described as “It’s like I’m there with you!” and my photography as stunning, but don’t let that stop you from forming your own opinion.
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