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Foreign Goalkeepers - The Case Against

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In his article a couple of days ago, Paul Neat, gave us his case to re-introduce foreign goalkeepers to the K-League after a prolonged absence. Here Stephen Waddell offers the case for keeping the restrictions in place for the sake of the league and the national team.  

So Yoo Hyun throws a few in the net in the ACL and suddenly we are talking about overturning a decades-old ban on foreign goalkeepers in the K-League? On the face of it, it does look like a potential quick-fix to address an increasingly threadbare looking array of goalkeeping talent in the league. But quick-fixes tend to create more problems than they solve and opening up the number 1 jerseys to global competition might just be a dangerous road for the league, and, more importantly, the national team. And let's face it, on the back of an embarrassing defeat to China they already have enough problems to deal with.

Uli seems to be doing a good job of making his own life difficult without adding further complications to the mix.
First let’s deal with a couple of obvious complaints. There is little doubt that the current crop of K-League keepers is far from the best we have ever seen. When trying to select my candidate for Goalkeeper of the Year in our season previews I was torn between 33-year-old Shin Hwa-yong , 37-year-old Kim Yong-dae or just pencilling in ‘they’re all a bit rubbish really’ on my voting paper. 

Behind those guys there isn’t very much coming through the ranks that paints a positive future for Korean goalies. Noh Dong-geun looked very average for Suwon when he played, Lee Chang-geun has not yet managed to firmly establish himself as a first choice keeper and Lee Beom-young is still trying to fulfil his early potential. Kim Dong-jun of Seongnam remains probably the best long term hope for the national team but finds himself playing second-tier football for now. There’s definitely a problem that needs looking at.

There is also no real moral argument to be made for excluding foreign goalkeepers from the league. It’s an entirely arbitrary decision to discriminate against players of foreign nationality based on the rather open admission that they are probably better at it than local players. It’s a brazenly protectionist move and probably indefensible from that respect. Should a Japanese or Spanish goalkeeper be allowed to play football in Korea the same way that a Brazilian striker or a Croatian centre-half can? Of course they should. From a footballing point of view though, the more interesting question is surely whether opening up the league to foreign goalkeepers would be a positive move for the K-League and Korean football. And the answer to that, in my view, has to be a resounding no.


Will Foreign Keepers Improve The Game?

I just don’t see any scenario in which introducing non-Korean goalkeepers into the league is a good thing. In the most positive case the goalkeepers brought in are of a good standard and much better than the domestic options. Pretty soon it’s going to be fashionable to have an import between the sticks and every K-League team is going to have a foreign goalkeeper. This is exactly the situation that saw the rule introduced in the first place as the league and KFA could see it happening on the back of the success of Valery Sarychev. Where does that leave opportunities for Korean goalkeepers and the KNT in a few years?

You only have to look at the situation at the other end of the park to see the likely impact of opening up the goalkeeper slots to global competition. It’s pretty much de rigeur now for any K-League team to have a foreign centre-forward. In fact, you might even argue that sourcing the best foreign goalscorer has become absolutely key in determining the destination of the title. By my count only 5 of 12 Classic sides have a Korean number 9 this season – and one of them is forced into that, at least until they let Brazilian strikers into the army! Is it any coincidence that the KNT has struggled for decades to find someone to put the ball in the net when the domestic league is dominated by guys who aren’t eligible?

Most K-League teams are now reliant on imports to score their goals. Finding the right one can make all the difference. Not many are as good as this guy though.  
Of course in the case of forwards it’s fairly impractical to limit their use and you can make a case that they add a bit of glamour to the league. It’s certainly more entertaining for fans to watch Adriano or Orsic bang in goals left, right and centre than watch a local youngster screw a weak shot past the post from six yards out. But again you do have to look at the long term effects on the development of Korean strikers. Are promising youngsters preferring to target positions in midfield or out wide because they know they will have a huge challenge to make the centre-forward position their own? Could this at least partly explain why Korea seems to have so many talented midfielders but nobody capable of actually putting the ball in the net regularly? We should ask ourselves if this is a situation we want to see repeated for goalkeepers in five or ten years time. 

Would improving the goalkeeping, and presumably reducing the number of goals scored, even help the league at all? At a time when the league suits are trying everything to encourage attacking football, more goals and more entertainment it would seem a backwards step. 


What's The Downside?

Of course, the nightmare scenario is even worse. Imagine the league swamped with third-rate Glove-inhos no better than the local goalkeepers, but still clogging up the keeping slots across the two divisions. What benefit would that be to anyone other than the shady agents who seem to make a comfortable living from the conveyor belt of Brazilians that come into the K-League on three-year contracts then disappear six months later?

If anything, the K-League should be looking more closely at how it can increase the quality of foreign players in Korea and perhaps tighten up some of the standards on who is eligible to play. 

This is not a rant against foreign players in the league. There have been plenty of very good ones and many who have added greatly to their teams and the game as a whole. In my time of watching the league I have seen guys like Sasa Drakulic, Zoran Urumov, Gabi Popescu, Denis, Nadson, Denilson and Stevica Ristic light up the league. The list goes on and on. 

Recently, we have had guys like Adriano, Dejan, Jonjic, Edu, Orsic, Jonathan and Tarabai who have all been standouts and the latest crop of exciting imports like Robert Feczesin,  Haris Harba and a whole crop of Aussies who look to be of a very high standard. Foreign players are, without doubt, good for the league.

It shouldn’t be forgotten though that for every Adriano there is probably three Gilbertos, for every Dejan, a Lazar, for every Tarabai, a Ryan Johnson. Does any Bluewings fan really want to watch the goalkeeping equivalent of Hygor pulling on their #1 jersey?

Suwon fans, look carefully at this picture. Still think foreign goalkeepers are a good idea?  
Of course, the reality of foreign goalkeepers would be somewhere between these two extremes. Just like we see today some would be good, some would be not so good. Some teams would embrace them, some would stick with what they know. However that in itself could also create issues. There would be a real danger of creating a K-league foreign goalkeeper arms race where the biggest and richest teams can afford to bring in a classy Eastern European stopper and the smaller less wealthy sides can’t. Just as see we today with goalscorers we are in danger of creating yet another stick for chaebol clubs to beat citizen sides with and widening the gap between the haves and the have nots even further.

So, no, I’m not in favour of changing the rules just yet. But that doesn’t mean nothing can be done. There is a problem that needs to be looked at. The question though has to be how can we help improve the standard of domestic keepers. Given the very limited potential for Korean goalies to play outside of Korea that means the K-League has to focus on bringing through the best talent it can.


Learn From The Past

Ironically, part of the issue has been that the foreign goalkeeper ban has actually done its job very well in creating a generation of Korean goalkeepers that were of a pretty high standard and almost impossible to displace from the limited number of starting slots that existed within the league. 

Rewind fifteen years and Lee Woon-jae, Kim Byung-ji and Choi Eun-sung were the men in possession of the national team shirts.  Behind them Seo Dong-myeong and Kim Yong-dae were the up and comers and Kim Young-kwang was breaking through at Jeonnam and about to be the next big thing.

The Flying Mullet played so long in the K-League he was in danger of becoming the Flying Baldpatch
A dozen years later it was still mostly the same names that were filling the shirts at top K-League clubs. Some of these guys played into their forties (Byung-ji only finally retired at the start of last season at the age of 45) and created a huge roadblock for the development of young goalkeepers in the league. Unable to oust the experienced and trusted stoppers from their slots and unable to go elsewhere, a generation of Korean goalkeepers mostly stagnated in the reserves waiting for a glimpse of daylight via the occasional run out in the FA Cup or an injury to the established first choice. No doubt there were also cultural factors at play in the deference to the older, wiser head but, regardless of the reasons, a career spent waiting for Choi Eun-sung to retire cannot be the best start for any goalkeeper.

Since then of course we have added new teams and a whole new division so there are more opportunities for keepers to get first team experience but it will take some time for the benefits of this to work its way through the system. The recent trend of Japan cherry-picking the best Korean keepers is also forcing the hand of Korean clubs to take chances on guys who would probably have been overlooked in the past.

Hong Jeong-nam finally got his wish; he's started as many games for Jeonbuk this year as he had in his entire previous career
Jeonbuk are a prime example here. Losing Kwon Sun-tae has forced them to give a chance to Hong Jeong-nam. A 28 year-old who, in a ten-year career at the Jeonju club, has managed a grand total of 23 first team appearances, 16 of which came in his two-year spell at the Army. No doubt, had the option been available, Hyundai would have been tempted to spend some of their wealth on an import, consigning Hong to another season watching from the sidelines.

There are, no doubt, many others like Hong. His predecessor on the bench at Jeonbuk Lee Beom-soo spent five years at Jeonju managing only 180 minutes of football in total. He took the plunge and dropped down a division to Seoul E-Land only to see Kim Young-kwang barge ahead of him in the queue. Another year on the bench loomed and only now, after a year at Daejeon and yet another fresh start at Gyeongnam does he seem to be establishing himself as a number 1.

Lee Chang-geun spent four seasons as understudy to Lee Beom-young at Busan but now seems to have finally found a starting place at top-of-the-table Jeju. Kim Dong-jun, at 22, has already played nearly 30 K-League games for Seongnam and looks a stick-on to be the KNT #1 at some point in the future. Does anyone think he would have been given that opportunity had the option of picking up a cheap Polish keeper had been available to the club?

Had foreign keepers been allowed legends like Choi Eun-sung may never have been given the chance to establish themselves


So What's The Answer?

Korean coaches need to be bold in giving chances to young goalkeepers and sticking with them through their development. Of course they will make mistakes but they will learn from them and improve. If Hwang Sun-hong is unhappy with Yoo Hyun, a goalkeeper that I actually rate very highly from his Incheon days, then he should look to his backup options and give them the opportunity to show what they can do. That seems like a far better solution for everyone than trawling the free transfer markets for European cast-offs looking for a stop-gap.

The goalkeeper rule is there for a reason. It’s given us legends like Byung-ji, Eun-sung and Woon-jae and it will give us more in the future. Let’s take a moment to catch our breath before we decide to throw it in the bin.   


           

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