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Exclusive Interview: The Curious Case of Karel De Smet: Daejeon Citizen

The curious case of Karel De Smet.

Even those who cast a particularly keen eye on all things K League may be excused for not knowing too much about Karel De Smet - certainly, those outside of Chungcheon province.

Photo Credit: DCFC.co.kr

Experienced Belgian centre back De Smet arrived on the Korean peninsula in the winter of 2012 but his career in the land of the morning calm was practically over before it had even begun.

During the winter break between the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Daejeon looked to strengthen their squad by bringing in a like-for-like replacement for the popular striker Kevin Oris whose departure to Jeonbuk was imminent.

But it wasn’t just another striker that was on Daejeon’s shopping list as De Smet explains: “As Kevin Oris did well for Daejeon, and the club were anticipating his move, they were looking for a Kevin-type of player in the Belgian competition.

“Kevin's agent was also contacted for 'more good' players. It was indeed Kevin that recommended me.

“I had played against Kevin for I don’t know how many times and we played together before he left to Daejeon in January 2012. 

"I actually succeeded him as team captain of Royal Antwerp FC after he left”, added De Smet.

It is easy to see why Oris recommended De Smet as the Ghent-born veteran boasted of an impressive resume having captained Royal Antwerp and accumulated over 400 career appearances.

Thus, the addition of De Smet was heralded as an excellent signing and exactly what Daejeon needed – an experienced and cultured defender who could organise from the back.

However, quite why De Smet was never able to properly don the colours of Daejeon Citizen has remained somewhat of a mystery ever since.

Some sections of the Daejeon support were under the impression that internal politics primarily caused by Daejeon’s change of manager was at the crux  of De Smet’s non-starting career south of the 38th parallel.

Former manager Yoo Sang-chul had overseen the arrival of De Smet but neither Daejeon nor Coach Yoo could come to an agreement on a new contract and so he left to coach Ulsan University.

In came Kim In-wan, former assistant manager at Busan IPark, who wanted to build his own team with his own signings.

But, if there was any friction from the incoming manager, it certainly wasn’t noticeable: “I did not even know up till that there was a departure of the former coach, but it is possible that he agreed with the scouts for my move and then they brought in the new players.”

Although determined to prove himself to his new manager and teammates, De Smet admits that sometimes football wasn’t at the forefront of his mind: “The start was difficult because I was not yet thinking football from day one, but thinking about lots of other things; how to cope with the new life, the Korean style of training, the intensity, trying to find the balance between focus on football and my family - for example school for the children. 

"My mind was never at rest and my body had to adapt to hard and long training camps.”

It was around this time that De Smet’s injury problems began: “I started feeling physical pains and they only got worse at the last training camp at Namhae.  

"I decided to stop trying to train and play through the pain caused by inflammation. Just one week before the opening game against Jeonbuk and Kevin - that was a big disappointment.

“The injury was triggered by more than one thing; my age and previous injuries that in some way cause a dis-balance in the body, training methods and the emotional dis-balance in my life at that moment.
"I always said afterwards that I should have been able to make a move like this being single and young. It would have made a huge difference.”
De Smet’s move to Korea came somewhat out of the blue, he explains: “The move came as a surprise to me, because I did not know they [Daejeon] were also thinking about a defender. 

"They were doubtful about the contract of a Brazilian defender at that time so the Daejeon scouts came to a game in which me and the striker that my agent recommended played in against each other.

“We both impressed the scouts - this was beginning of December 2012 - and Kevin's [Oris] agent proposed we should work together. For me this looked like an opportunity, this could be a life altering experience in many ways.

“In the end the striker, at that time 24 years of age, did not want to leave Belgium, because he also had lots of interest from teams in Belgium, and he thought this was too early in his career. 

"The striker’s name is actually Laurent Depoitre, now playing now for KAA Gent and was voted player of the year by the fans of the last season champion in Belgium.

“After a good long talk we, me and my wife to-be, decided to take the chance and make the move with our kids being in kindergarten still. A lot was settled on short notice, as was the contract.

“I flew to Korea the 28th of December 2012 together with my agent, had the physical tests and signed the same day. I had more X-rays in one day than I ever had in Belgium!

“I flew back to Belgium on the 30th, so I could have New Year’s Evening together with my family then 10 days later I left to join the team at the training camp on Jeju Island.”

Once arriving, De Smet recalls his settling in period. A spell which proved to be somewhat trying for the former Vigor Wuitens Hamme man: “I never had a great settling in period, but I think that's quite difficult, so I understood. 

“There were a lot of players, and the culture does not make them understanding and patient as I know it took Kevin also quite some time to cope with circumstances but scoring goals settled him after a couple of months.

“I never really felt much appreciation from the head coach but I understand this, because respect is what I have to earn and I never got to play my best level and I was under-performing at the time.

“But, the players were nice and they treated me with respect. 

"Some of them were really making efforts to talk and joke but it still was difficult.

“I had a good relationship with Joao Paolo and Yuta Baba who were my roomies on training camp and at the clubhouse so my Portuguese improved, still far easier then Korean! 
"Also youngster Jeong Yeon-woong who has spent the last year and a half in Germany at FC Kassel, he has contacted me sometimes for contacts and maybe a club in Belgium but him being a non-European I couldn't do a lot for him.
“Also, luckily, there was my translator Hyun-soo, from who I got a lot of help with settling in and arranging thousands of things.  

"And there was the first team coach, Michael Kim, who’s still there and who I also appreciated very much. 

"He was one of the few guys I could really talk about the hard time being injured and me wanting to play and perform well for the club.”

Still undeterred, De Smet went about his rehabilitation: “My rehabilitation was quite difficult as the injury was an inflammation of the pubis and abs.

“There was not a lot I could do except for weight training of the upper body and cycling exercises. I would do 3 to 4 hours a day of rehab and gained 6 kg of muscles in 3 months.”

He continued: “I got to see a lot of hospitals and doctors. Needles and cryotherapy turned into a daily routine for 3 months. 

"At 8 AM to the hospital for cryotherapy then 9 AM to another hospital for exercises, then off to the club for more exercises at 10 AM and sometimes treatment, back to home 12:30 PM rest and more training 2:30 PM.

Despite De Smet’s hard work in order to get himself back to fitness, the medical team at the club appeared somewhat indifferent to their resident Belgian: “I just went up to the medical staff every day to show my face and take my weight. 

"A lot of days they didn't ask me what I was doing, so I kept repeating the exercises I knew and those they gave me the occasional 2 or 3 times.

“They were disappointed and I don't think they were patient and understanding. What I needed was a long rest for my injury to heal, time that I didn't have, so I forced exercises and didn't heal at all.

“There was no good rehabilitation, because they didn't have the time, competition had already started and the trainer didn't quite believe in me either. 

"After two months they took me to Seoul to a specialist doctor who said I needed to have an operation.

But, despite what may seem like progress, De Smet feared the worst: “I didn't hear anything for two weeks. No date for surgery was suggested. 
"I already felt at that time what was going to happen, my possible release.”
In May 2013, after failing to make a single competitive appearance for Citizen, De Smet’s contract was paid up and he returned to his native Belgium: “I think what mainly lead to my release was my wage and the fact that I wouldn't play that season if I had surgery. 

"It was the Korean agent - with who my agent worked together for the deal - that suggested the release in April.”

De Smet says his farewells to Daejeon supporters

Despite what some might consider a lack of patience on the club’s part, De Smet understood their view point: “I don't know if there was some politics behind the scenes, but seen from their point of view, they made a financial decision. 

"I had done the homework with my wife - what would be the best in everybody's interest; kids’ school, us, family, my recovery, and we made a compromise with club.”

De Smet still keeps a close eye on Daejeon’s results and could not help but offer his disappointment at the club’s current plight: “I do still follow the results, and Kevin's [Incheon United], and was happy they got promoted again, but it’s a pity they are back in last position.”

His interest in Korea doesn’t just halt at the fortunes of his former club, however, as De Smet admits that he took a great deal of positives out of the experience: “I hope one day soon, I can visit back there and meet up with some people.  

"Although I did not succeed in football over there, this experience next to football brought me something extra in life.

“It is an interesting culture which I felt closely related to as I value respect for elders and discipline. I enjoyed the stay with my family and got to see a beautiful country with nice people and interesting habits.”

Despite such bad luck, De Smet looks back on his time in the land of the morning calm somewhat philosophically: “It's been approximately two years now since I left Korea. 

"A lot has happened since, but I still reflect a lot on the time I had there - on the chance I had been given and the chances that were missed.

“There are always two things when I think about Korea. On the one hand you have the family moving and living abroad part. 

"The other part was the football story, me trying to adapt and succeed in football.”

Since returning to his native Belgium, De Smet began his long road to recovery: “Since I returned I had to take one year off with no sports at all. 

"The doctors here advised me not to have surgery but just have a good rest.

“In November 2013 I started working for ING Bank in Belgium then in July 2014 I joined a low league amateur team and played consistently without pain.  
"We became champions with great stats winning 27games drawing 3 scoring 110 goals and conceding only 10. 
"I enjoy playing again without injury and have fully recovered!”
De Smet never got to properly wear the colours of Daejeon Citizen but he has still got some with him back in Belgium: “I got to keep and receive eight sets of match shirts and shorts when I left. 
"I gave some of them to people who were fans but I've got two shirts left. 
"I couldn't take all of the training-gear but most of it I took with me. 
"I still use it to go to training!”
We would like to thank Karel for this exclusive interview and wish him all the very best.

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