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Foreign Goalkeepers: In Favour of Lifting The Ban

Header image via KFA.co.kr

Now, one must make it clear from the offset that the arguments being put forward regarding whether or not foreign goalkeepers should once again be allowed in the K League is not a reaction to any particular individual or team. 

Despite witnessing some rather questionable goalkeeping in the K League over the last few years (some but by no means all), the notion of re-allowing foreign goalkeepers back into the K League is merely something that I think should be looked at by the Korean Football Association (KFA). 

The the rule is somewhat archaic and, in my opinion, if changed, could actually be beneficial to the current crop of Korean goalkeepers and indeed the next generation of Korean custodians.

The Hands of God

But first, where do we begin? The K League currently allows teams to have four foreign players in their squad; three of which can be from any nation, whilst an additional fourth must be from a country within the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) which includes Australia. However, no player regardless of which country they originate from can be a goalkeeper; this was a rule that was introduced in the mid-to-late 1990s. Initially, the rule was a restriction on how many matches over the course of a season the goalkeeper could play; in 1997 two thirds, 1998 one third and then eventually in 1999 a complete ban.  The reasoning behind the ban was largely down to a man named Shin Euison, or as he was born Valeri Sarychev, a Russian goalkeeper who became a K League legend. 

His Korean name means ‘Hands of God’ which was given to him by fans initially due to his outstanding ability in between the sticks during his playing career south of the 38th parallel, but also became his official Korean name after becoming a naturalised Korean citizen in 2000. He was so good in fact that it influenced the KFA in deciding that there should be a ban on foreign goalkeepers in the K League as his sterling performances prompted other K League teams to follow suit and search abroad for their stoppers. Sarychev and others of his ilk were blamed for a lack of quality goalkeepers in Korea, as was a troublesome 1994 World Cup campaign for South Korea where goalkeeper Choi Inyoung put in some somewhat uninspiring performances - Germany’s third goal in the 3-2 defeat in Dallas will be something that Koreans won’t want to be reminded of. 

In 1999 then Sarychev was unable to play but decided to stay in Korea and became a coach with LG Anyang Cheetahs. Then, after becoming a naturalised Korean citizen in 2000, he returned to game and went on to win the K League title that very season. But, since those relatively early days of the K League, the league has grown into one of the strongest leagues in Asia with Korean teams holding the most Asian Champions League wins (11 in total from five teams). Korean football is a lot different than it was in 1999 when the ban was first implemented so is it time to once again allow K League teams to sign foreign goalkeepers? 

Frankly, I think it is. If a team is in need of a goalkeeper then why should they be limited on whom they can sign? Let’s imagine a K League Challenge club are in the market for a goalkeeper but due to budget restraints, as many are in the second tier, bringing in a quality Korean goalkeeper isn’t easy. Why then shouldn’t that club be able to scout Europe, other parts of Asia, or South America for a goalkeeper? They would be able to for a striker or a defender so why not a goalkeeper?

Help not hinder

Speaking in 2014, former Ulsan Hyundai manager and a once 46-capped Korean international central defender Cho Minkook was very much in favour of uplifting the ban, he said: 

"I have claimed for a long time that a foreign goalkeeper system should be revived in the K-League. If a good foreign goalkeeper arrives, the level of the K-League will go up. In addition, while training together, domestic goalkeepers can also get a lot of help". 

It is this for this exact reason why I think the ban should be lifted, because foreign goalkeepers could actually help their Korean colleagues as opposed to hinder them. 

Although the foreign goalkeeper ban has helped to bring through a crop of reliable and talented goalkeepers such as Kim Seunggyu, Kwoun Suntae and Jung Sungryong, it seems as though the progression and development of this current batch of custodians has tailed off to a point where Korean goalkeepers are no longer improving. 

Current Korea #1 Kim Seunggyu during his Ulsan Hyundai days (Image courtesy of UHFC.tv)
Foreign goalkeepers would help their development by bringing in different training exercises and ideas from around the world as well as add some much-needed competition. If a Korean goalkeeper is no longer first choice simply because his passport has Daehanminguk printed on the front it means there's competition for places, which would bring out the best in those vying for that much-coveted starting berth. It is a matter of pride, and if there is the risk that a foreign goalkeeper is going to come in and take the number one jersey, then it would encourage players to fight tooth and nail to keep that number one on their backs; no one else’s, and just how it would be for any other position on the field.

Comfortable ‘keepers

Because Korean goalkeepers, especially good ones, know that clubs have no choice but to sign domestic ‘keepers, said ‘keepers can essentially name their price.  If a foreign goalkeeper comes in it adds competition for the other goalkeepers in the squad who in turn work and train harder in order to displace the foreign imports that are keeping them out of the side. Everybody wins: the team have a good number 1, the reserve ‘keeper works harder to push for the number one spot and the young goalkeepers in the squad learn from someone who has brought in different ideas which can be shared and passed on. 

The result is a more cultured goalkeeping department that have all improved their game, as I am sure that there are training techniques that foreign goalkeepers could learn from their Korean counterparts. Thus, my point being is that perhaps a reason why the progression of Korean goalkeepers has slowed down is because Korean goalkeepers are perhaps too comfortable. It could be argued that because there is no external competition, Korean goalkeepers simply don’t feel the need to improve their game beyond being number one for Suwon or Pohang for example. 

Is there a lack of ambition? They know that they are needed because clubs can’t sign ‘keepers from anywhere else and so any half decent goalkeeper can name his price, so to speak and they are happy enough being a guaranteed first pick.

Evolution not revolution

Now, I am not suggesting that every K League club should go out and sign a foreign goalkeeper just for the sake of it. Granted, in the mid-1990s signing a foreign goalkeeper was in vogue but the league has matured since then and the standard of football has improved massively. The K League has its own identity, it doesn’t need to simply emulate other leagues nor do K League teams need to copy each other. What I am suggesting is that instead of marginalising foreign goalkeepers look at the quality of the scouting networks. 

Perhaps there is a fear that there will be too many substandard foreign goalkeepers entering these shores in the same way that there are perhaps too many South American forwards that flatter to deceive. A burst of pace and a step over here and there is all it seems to take to sell a Brazilian forward to a Korean team. Well, it should take more than being Spanish or German to make a good goalkeeper and this is what scouts of K League clubs should be aware of. 

The efforts, therefore, shouldn’t be at limiting which positions come in from foreign countries but rather how said players are scouted. Quite, if the KFA feel that there is still an issue with goalkeepers in Korea then why aren’t efforts made to improve coaching? It’s too easy to place blame elsewhere but if the quality of coaching isn’t up to standard then whose fault is that? It is certainly not the fault of any prospective foreign goalkeepers looking to ply their trade on these shores.

To conclude, the idea of allowing foreign goalkeepers to be once again allowed back into the K League is not because I feel that every team should sign a foreign goalkeeper, nor because there is a lack of good goalkeepers in this country. In fact, there are some really good goalkeepers that just don’t seem to get a break. Daejeon Citizen’s young ‘keeper Park Juwon, now on loan at Asan Mugunghwa as part of his military service for instance, is perhaps the best goalkeeper Daejeon have had since Choi Eunsung. But, for some reason Park has found himself in and out of the team under a number of managers in favour of some rather inept replacements. Quite how he has been sent to Asan and not Sangju in the Classic remains to be seen, especially given that his calamitous former Daejeon teammate Oh Seunghoon is currently at Sangju plying his trade in the top tier. 

Digressions aside, the rule should be changed simply because it is no longer needed. I am not saying that the K League needs foreign goalkeepers but the option should be there for those who would like to strengthen their goalkeeping department. Take FC Seoul and Jeonbuk Hyundai for instance, they both lost their first choice keepers whether it be due to military service or exclusion from the Asian Champions League, and now have much weaker goalkeeper departments. Which Korean keepers are available that would come in and improve their teams? There aren’t many, if any at all. Why shouldn’t they bring in a foreign goalkeeper? In my eyes, there should be no reason why they couldn’t.

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