Asia Pursuit: Kim BoKyung to Cardiff

I’m not a ‘real’ football fan. That was the conclusion I came to after reading Brian Phillips’ excellent piece (The Real Problem) in issue five of The Blizzard. Reading Phillips’ comparison of the more traditional, ‘real’ fan and his modern, global counterpart, it became apparent that I had far more in common with the latter. “[W]atching matches alone in the green glow of the television, biting down on shouts that would wake up the whole block-” or in my own case, my wife in the next room- is exactly how I’ve spent most of the last eight Premier League seasons watching Manchester United.

It’s people like me, English football’s night watchmen, that Cardiff’s new Malaysian owners are targeting with their re-branding: the highly-prized Asian market. The impact of foreigners on Welsh football is one of our M.O.s here at Lost Boyos, but we’ve so far stayed clear of the minefield that has been the short reign of Tan Sri Vincent Tan. The reasons are simple. This contributor was once (briefly) a member of the Junior Bluebirds supporters club, but the lure of Carl Dale, Phil Stant, Cohen Griffith and other cult heroes of the early- and mid-nineties was regrettably not enough to entice me into becoming a fully adult Bluebird. My fellow Lost Boyos co-founder is, of course, considerably fonder of Cardiff’s west Wales rivals, so neither of us have really felt capable of accurately capturing the mood at the City of Cardiff Stadium.

Our, or at least my own, interest has been raised at the goings-on at the capital club since it recently emerged that the latest phase of the great re-brand has been the attempt to sign young Korean attacker Kim Bo-Kyung; thus handing us the chance to at least mention the Malaysians’ plans without hopefully causing any offense.

Kim was born in Jeollanam Province in the country’s southwest corner in 1989. In 2008, Kim began attending Hongik University, a university in Seoul that lends its name to one of the city’s most famous and more interesting nightlife districts. University football in Korea is not the excuse for a lecture-free Wednesday afternoon of Britain’s university sport fields. The U-League is the starting point for the vast majority of Korean professional footballers with the best players being drafted into the K-League each winter.

Whilst at Hongik, Kim received his first international recognition. He was a few months too old to represent Korea on home soil in the 2007 U17 World Cup, but two years later, he joined several of those who had played in that tournament on the plane for the U20 World Cup in Egypt. In North Africa, Kim started four of Korea’s five matches as the young Taeguk Warriors made it out of the group stages for only the fourth time* in the country’s ten appearances up to 2009 (* in the 1991 tournament, Korea were represented by a unified North and South team).

They began with a 2-0 defeat against Cameroon. For the remaining group games, coach Hong MyungBo, made several changes to his frontline, but Kim survived the cut. The result was four points -a draw with Germany, followed by a win over the US- that booked Korea’s place in the second round. Kim was on the scoresheet in the victory over the young Americans, netting the second in the 3-0 win.

In the first knockout stage, Paraguay were brushed aside in another 3-0 win. This time, Kim opened the scoring early in the second half and Kim Min-Woo’s double confirmed their spot in the last eight. Just three minutes after scoring though, Kim collected his second yellow card of the tournament and was ruled out of the quarter-final. There, Korea met eventual winners Ghana and, despite their valiant efforts, could’t stop the Black Stars as they won 3-2.

After Egypt, Kim returned to Hongik, but did not finish his time at the university. His talent was spotted from across the East Sea (or Sea of Japan, to give it its more globally-recognised name) and Kim headed off to Cerezo Osaka.

His new club ended 2009 in second place in Japan’s J2 meaning that they would start 2010 in the J-League. Kim, however, would not be joining his new team in Japan’s top flight. Instead, his professional career began with a loan spell in J2 at Oita Trinita, who had just been relegated.

Trinita’s first season outside the J-League in eight years was not a successful one. They finished the season in 15th place (of 19 teams) and crowds were close to half of what they had been in their recent J-League years. Kim, on the other hand, had a good first year as a professional starting 27 of his sides’ 36 matches and scoring eight goals.

Kim’s performances in Japan saw him go to both the 2010 World Cup and 2011 Asian Cup with South Korea. Kim had made his debut as a half-time substitute for Yeom KiHun in a friendly against Zambia in early 2010, then made his first start in the next game against Finland. He didn’t get on the field at World Cup and only managed ten minutes of extra-time in Korea’s 1-0 quarter final win over Iran at the Asian Cup.

After the Asian Cup, in which Korea finished third, Kim returned to his parent club in the J-League. It took until July for him to score his first goal for Cerezo, but he again ended the season with eight league goals, as Cerezo finished in twelfth place – well down on the previous season’s third.

That third place had allowed Cerezo to play in the 2011 Asian Champions League. Kim started all six group games as Osaka finished second to Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. Kim was again on the field in the 1-0 second round victory over city rivals Gamba Osaka, then got his team’s third goal, a penalty, in the 4-3 quarter final first leg win against Jeonbuk. In the return game in Jeonju, however, the Koreans overturned Cerezo 6-1 to progress to the semis.

Cardiff’s attention, and the attention of other teams around Europe, has come at the time when Kim is producing the best football of his short career. In 2012, Kim has already scored seven J-League goals from his first fifteen appearances, as well as two more in the J-League Cup. At international level, Kim has started Korea’s two most recent internationals, 2014 World Cup qualifiers against Qatar and Lebanon, and got his first and second international goals in the 3-0 win against Lebanon.

Currently, Kim is with Korea’s Olympic team making final preparations for the London tournament. The strong squad, still managed by Hong MyungBo, contains many of the players that participated in the U-17 and U-20 World Cups of 2007 and 2009 respectively, with several of them now active in European leagues. Kim has played in both warm-up victories against fellow qualifiers New Zealand (2-1) and Senegal (3-0) and looks set to be a starter at the Games where Korea are in tough group with Mexico, Switzerland, and Gabon.

Cardiff, then, if the deal goes through, are getting a very good young footballer who will undoubtedly be a strong addition to Malky Mackay’s promotion-chasing squad. What, if any, impact will it have on the owners’ desire to conquer Asia? Here, the evidence becomes more anecdotal. When I first arrived in South Korea in 2004, no Korean had yet played in any of the English leagues. In the summer of 2005, Park JiSung (Manchester United) and Lee YoungPyo (Tottenham) became the first arrivals from PSV Eindhoven. Since then, Seol KiHyeon (Wolves, Reading, Fulham), Lee DongKuk (Middlesborough), Kim DoHyun (WBA), Lee ChungYong (Bolton), Cho WonHee (Wigan), and most recently Park ChuYoung (Arsenal) and Ji DongWon (Sunderland) have all played there at some point.

Park JiSung has been by far the most successful of the Korean imports, both in terms of footballing success and his off-the-field value. Park, though, is an exception and comparing him to the others would be unrealistic. He is the most talented and most famous of the those players. He also played for a team that were already well-known and well-supported before his arrival, and that continue to have success in his seven years there.

Probably the most comparable of the players to have so far played in England are Bolton’s lee ChungYong and Sunderland’s Ji DongWon. Both were young attacking players whose arrivals in England marked their first moves away from Asia. Despite the relative success these two young players have had, with Lee, in particular, becoming one of Bolton’s most important players, the streets of Seoul are not yet teeming with Bolton or Sunderland replica shirts. Indeed, I’m yet to see either teams’ jerseys among the racks of fellow Adidas portfolio clubs Chelsea, Real Madrid, and AC Milan shirts which are readily-available in the sports companies numerous Seoul outlets.

Awareness of both clubs has, however, undoubtedly been raised by being Premier League teams with Korean players. Korean sports channels will often choose which game they broadcast depending on whether it features a Korean player or not. Bolton have also attracted Korean sponsorship in the past and Sunderland recently took part in the Peace Cup in Korea, with a prize fund of around two million pounds. These are the kind of opportunities that Cardiff might attract if Kim BoKyung becomes a successful player.

Cardiff do not, of course, currently offer Premier League football, so might initially struggle to maximise Kim’s off-field worth. No Korean broadcaster currently shows the Championship (although if Kim joins Cardiff and Lee remains with Bolton, it might become more attractive to broadcasters) and interest is low. To get the most out of Kim off-the-field, Cardiff will finally need to get past their promotion and reach the Premier League. On the field, Kim will no doubt be able to help them achieve that.

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