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The K-League's Foreign Coaches

A recent K-League managers get together was notable for the absence of any foreign bosses in the top flight
With the departure of Martin Rennie, the sole foreign manager within the K-League's two divisions has departed Korean shores and the K-League's managers meetings will once again be entirely domestic affairs. Across all of the divisions only one foreign manager remains in club football - K3's Siheung City are coached by Spaniard Kike Linero - although ironically the top job in Korean football, the NT head coaching role, is held by Uli Stielike.

Uli's appointment in 2014 was a return to a preference for foreign coaches for the KFA after an almost 7-year spell of appointing local managers. Of course, the NT love affair with foreign managers can be traced back to the Hiddink era. Although he wasn't the first foreign NT boss (that accolade goes to Russian Anatoliy Byshovets who managed 13 games in '94-'95) his success was the catalyst for a string of foreign coaches including Humberto Coelho, Jo Bonfrere, Dick Advocaat and Pim Verbeek. Indeed, of 123 national team games played between 2001 and 2007 a Korean managed the team in only five of them.

Uli Stielike is now the only high-profile foreign manager on the peninsula.
At club level it's been a bit of a different story however. Foreign coaches have generally been shunned by K-League teams. Of course, there are economic forces at play as bringing in a coach from overseas is a more expensive option than sourcing a local manager but generally there's also a sense that a foreign manager is a risk. They may not adapt to the local culture, they won't speak the language and their ideas may not gel with the Korean approach. In a season or two they'll be gone.

The track record of foreign managers suggests clubs may have a point. Very few make it through two whole seasons in charge and, in fact, Martin Rennie's almost two years in-post makes him one of the longest serving foreign managers in K-League history (though this may have been helped by having 8 months without a match at the start of his reign). Despite all this there have been at least a handful of foreign managers who have left their mark on the K-League over the past few years so I thought it would be worthwhile taking a look back at some of the more notable coaching imports.

1. Sergio Farias (Pohang Steelers, 2005-2009)

Farias is, by my count, both the longest serving foreign manager in the K-League and the most successful. In 2007 he took the Steelers to the K-League title and picked up the Manager of the Year award and promptly followed that with the KFA Cup in 2008 and then a highly successful 2009 where he picked up the K-League Cup, won the Asian Champions League and took Pohang to third place at the World Club Championship. With 103 victories he has won more games in the K-League than any other foreign coach.

His reign ended in slightly controversial circumstances however as he was given a one-year leave of absence to return to Brazil by Pohang. Rumours abounded that he had agreed a deal to move to the Middle East but these were strenuously denied by both the club and Farias who insisted it was his children's schooling that was his primary concern. He insisted that he would come back to Pohang in a year's time if the club wanted him, and then promptly signed a contract with Saudi club Al-Ahli.

Farias is currently coaching with Indian Super League club NorthEast United.

2. Ian Porterfield (Busan I'cons, 2003-2006)


Porterfield holds a special place in my memory. As a former Aberdeen manager it was a happy coincidence that he took over Busan during my first full season following the K-League. I also had the pleasure to meet the man at least a couple of times during his reign and his mini British invasion of the K-League certainly helped to convert me to a Korean football fanatic.

Korea's first Scottish coach, Porterfield, also brought in former Aberdeen legend Drew Jarvie as his assistant and a smattering of other British names in the shape of strikers Jamie Cureton and Andy Cooke and defender Chris Marsden. The latter was quite a coup for the K-League but again things went sour as the former Southampton man quit the team a few weeks into the season having played only 2 matches (and scoring a goal)

His time in charge peaked with an FA Cup win in 2004, which remains Busan's last silverware. In 2005 Busan narrowly missed out on the title losing in the play-offs and also made it through to the quarter-finals of the ACL. Despite this, Porterfield was never really fully appreciated at Busan and left in 2006.

Sadly Porterfield passed away in 2007 following a battle with colon cancer.

3. Senol Gunes (FC Seoul, 2007-2009)

Gunes was a slightly 'left-field' appointment for Seoul in 2007 as although the 31-times-capped Turkish goalkeeper had a successful track record in management he had never coached outside of his homeland before coming to Korea although his spell as Turkey boss also included the successful 2002 World Cup campaign where he pipped Korea to third place so no doubt he was still remembered from that.

Despite three years in charge Gunes never quite managed to make the breakthrough of winning a trophy at Seoul - runners up medals in the league and K-League cup were the best he could manage - but he did manage to talk himself into trouble with the suits on occasion, usually due to a rant about referees.

After his spell with Seoul, Gunes returned to Turkey to manage and is now at Besiktas where he has just picked up the Super Lig title, his first championship win as a manager.

4. Ilija Petkovic (Incheon United 2009-2010; Gyeongnam FC, 2013)


Petkovic took the reins at Incheon following a coaching career which had seem him work in Switzerland, Japan, China, Cyprus and his native Serbia and included a spell as national team coach for Serbia and Montenegro. However, he'd been unemployed for two and a half years prior to this job, once again proving Incheon United's motto, 'We're better than nothing' to be accurate.

Incheon have always had quite strong links with the Balkans and a number of high-profile K-League players from the region including Dejan Damjanovic and Dzenan Radoncic have come through their ranks initially, so it wasn't a huge surprise that they appointed a coach from the region.

He actually did a reasonably good job, taking Incheon up the table into a 5th place finish and into the Championship play-offs. In 2010, he resigned citing his wife's ill-health as a reason for wanting to return home but soon after signed a contract with Al Ahli in Qatar.

In 2013 Petkovic returned for a short spell in charge of Gyeongnam where he managed to avoid relegation although that feat has subsequently been tarnished by allegations of match-fixing.

5. Martin Rennie (Seoul E-Land 2015-2016)


Appointing Rennie as the first ever manager at E-Land was certainly a bold move from the club. Tasking the Scot with building a K-League club from the ground up was no small task and it showed a great deal of faith from the corporate management that he was trusted with the job.

Of course Rennie was no stranger to taking on brand new franchises having taken charge of Vancouver Whitecaps in the MLS in 2011. Prior to that, his coaching experience had mostly been in the lower leagues of US soccer including spells at Cascade Surge, Cleveland City Stars and Carolina Railhawks.

In his spell in the MLS Rennie had brought in a number of Scottish and English players including Kenny Miller, Barry Robson and Nigel Reo-Coker but he decided against bringing any to Korea instead plumping for familiar faces from his MLS days in Ryan Johnson and Carlyle Mitchell.

His record at E-Land was 23 wins and 18 draws from 60 matches, a 38% win rate. Rennie was sacked this month after a poor start to the 2016 campaign.



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