It has become almost a ritual now in South Korea that whenever the national team prepares for a home game, the day before kick-off, dozens of journalists converge on a prestigious hotel in north-western Seoul and spend over half an hour grilling the players.
The squad sits on different round tables. The Pkv more famous the player, the more chance they have of getting a table to themselves with chairs left empty in anticipation of journalistic attention. Other players, some less well-known or simply less talkative and outgoing, will sit with team-mates and roll eyes at questions or laugh at each other’s jokes.
It is Dick Advocaat’s idea, the Dutchman immediately winning over the scores of scribes in Korea by throwing open the doors, or more accurately, tearing down the barriers that had often existed between players and press under predecessor Jo Bonfrere – a seemingly small gesture but, unsurprisingly, a popular one.
On this occasion, the fourth time it has happened, the players are preparing for a friendly game with Angola the following day. Most of the squad have just returned from a six week overseas tour – a punishing itinerary that consisted of ten games, a good deal of training and by the looks of things, some significant bonding – as the players seem more relaxed in each other’s and the press’s presence than in the past.
Two foreign-based players are also holding court. Lee Eul-yong of Trabszonspor and Tottenham’s Lee Young-pyo. Due to the Carling Cup final, Park Ji-sung arrived late.
lee-young-pyoThe Spurs star is one of two players that have the ‘honour’ of an advertising board being placed behind him, the other is Lee Chun-soo, Ulsan Hyundai Horang-I’s tricky winger and K-League MVP 2005.
The atmosphere is busy but fairly relaxed. Advocaat, like the rest of his coaching staff, stands to one side, watching proceedings, helping himself to orange juice and shouting comments to players and pressmen. The Dutchman tells reporters interviewing young midfielder Baek Ji-hoon that it is his birthday.
Abruptly, the players get up and leave. Usually they head back gratefully to hotel rooms but this time they file into the main press conference room to participate in some kind of sponsorship deal between the national team, Amway and some kind of nutrient bar – one that looks strange enough not to warrant a taste.
After a gratifyingly short period of time, the press conference begins. Such affairs are not usually as interesting as one may think. The coach makes a statement, reporters ask questions which are usually greeted with fairly predictable answers.
Still, there is always the chance of something shocking, insightful or newsworthy and with the World Cup 100 days away and the national team’s last friendly game in Korea before the tournament just a day away, everybody is here.
Unsurprisingly, the theme of the conference was the overseas tour and preparations for the World Cup. Advocaat explained why the trip had been a success, the different kind of players played, the different kind of teams played and the different kind of systems played.
“We have a very good feeling about the past five or six weeks – playing and travelling with the team… we took the risk of playing ten games in five weeks to give the players a chance to play abroad against good countries,” said the Dutchman.
“Normally as coaches we wouldn’t play so many games… we had some great results and the games we lost we could have won. It was good experience. When Lee Young- pyo arrived in training he said that he could see the difference between now and November. We have improved a lot.”
Subsequently, a number of questions are asked, the one that gets a reaction from the coach is one that goes along the lines of: “You played a new four-man defence on the tour, most games Choi Jin-cheul and Kim Jin-kyu were the centre backs. Even though this pair continued to make mistakes, you didn’t give anybody else much of a chance. Why was that?”
Being sat on the front row, it was easy to see that even before the question had been fully translated to Advocaat, his face became flushed with anger and his eyes became hard. He struggled to contain himself.
“I make the decisions,” he barked. “Journalists write. You can write about it.”
It was interesting that Advocaat refused to comment on particular players but he followed the example set by his assistant Pim Verbeek a few months earlier, being happy to talk about young striker Park Chu-young, who according to the Korean media was going through a slump.
“We have to find out if Park will be in the eleven – it’s up to him. Of course, we take the decisions but when he shows his qualities then he will play – if he brings the right quality. Probably Park has to bring a little bit more.”
“It’s too early to say what the squad will be, there is still three months – everything is open. We will see the K-League and we can see many players abroad and see how they’re doing. We will tell the players to keep their good form for their clubs or it will be dangerous for them.”