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Interview with TNT FC Head Coach Mario Lemos


While writing an article on grassroots football in AsiaSteve Price got talking to TNT FC head coach Mario Lemos. TNT FC are an amateur club based in Seoul that over the past few years has helped give ex-pros a second chance in their footballing careers. The club has had numerous success stories, including St. Pauli’s Park Yi-young. Now they want to turn pro themselves, starting in the K3 and working their way up through the leagues.  I asked Mario about TNT’s future, and about Korean football in general.
(image via facebook.com/onetntfc)

How did you end up at TNT FC?

I started out as a youth coach in Portugal, where I’m from, then coached in the United States for a year. After that, I got my big breakthrough in professional football over in Thailand as assistant coach for Muangthong United, a big club who play in the Asian Champions’ League.

After that I came to Korea and started coaching youth football for Incheon City. TNT’s assistant coach, and close friend of mine, Sebastian Neumann invited me to give a session at TNT. At first I was a bit reluctant, but I really enjoyed the session and coaching. I had some offers, one in Mongolia for example, but when I heard that TNT were making a K3 team I thought I’d give it a shot.

How is TNT different from other clubs?

Basically TNT is for professional players who don’t have a team. They come and train with us and we try to build a team. We play friendly games, and afterwards if some club likes our players then they can sign them. Of course we try to make it like a football club, but the players are constantly changing, we lost a lot of players in the transfer market, and new players are always coming in. For example, last month Cho Woo-jin signed for Ansan Greeners, he was with us from January, for 5 or 6 months. When we played a friendly game against Gimpo, their scout was there and he liked him. So he went to Ansan and they saw him again and signed him. In fact, during this last transfer market we had ten players go to professional clubs. We had players go to Thailand, Malaysia, Ansan Greeners, three players went to the National League. It was really good for the club, but maybe not so good for me as a coach.

Why is TNT joining the K3?

Well, we’ve been playing friendly games and doing quite well, against the K3 teams we usually win, we went three months without losing. We played Seoul E-Land three times, and three times we drew against them. So there was some interest from this company, Sportsguru. Basically they wanted to make a K3 team in partnership with TNT.

Some things will change of course, I don’t know exactly what. TNT’s owner, Kim Tae-ryung is a pundit for SPO TV. I think he wants to keep TNT doing the same things but we’ll just build one team, we’ll just have around 25 players, so it won’t be like it is now.

They also want to get young players and then sell them, so it’s going to be a little bit more like a business with Sportsguru as the player agents. Currently, if players get the opportunity to join other clubs then they can move for free, we don’t charge anything.

Most of these players have experience playing at a higher level, so when we get in the league it’ll be easier to motivate the players, at the moment we just play friendly matches. For me too, I’d like to coach at a higher level.

What difficulties are there when coaching TNT?

From the start of the year until now I’ve coached more than 60 players! New players are always coming in and have to adapt to how we want to play. There’s also the language. I’m coaching in English and there’s no translator, just one or two of the players helping me out. That can make it tough for the players.

We can have four or five right backs at the same time. I remember in February we had eight center backs, and all at a really good level. We had to play three at the back, but even then, it was still hard for everybody to play, so sometimes players have to play a little bit out of position.

But the players all come with an open mind, they all have the motivation, they want to go back to professional football, and they really take it seriously. That’s what makes TNT successful.

What would happen to these players without a club like TNT to help them?

It’s a little bit hard for these athletes in Korea, especially for the younger players. For example, Busan I-Park had signed all these younger players, around twenty years old, and then after a season, a new head coach came in and just released everybody.

Basically these players have no options, they have nowhere to go, they don’t have agents, they don’t have connections, they’d played a year of professional football and suddenly they had nowhere to go.  They don’t know what to do, so some players just stop playing. One of our players played 18 games last season in the K League Challenge for Busan I-Park, and he came to us about two months ago, he had stopped playing, and he was 22 years old. He was really good player but he said he had no options, he didn’t know what to do, no club had contacted him.

For these younger players who have some experience in professional football but not a lot, TNT is a big help for them. Without TNT, they have nowhere to go. There’s not really a lot of options for these players.

Another player we had went to the army. He was center back for Gangwon FC, he was champion last year in the K League Challenge. He’s 26 years old, and he just stopped playing football. If you saw his CV, you’d see names like Pohang Steelers, Gangwon FC, for me it’s a little bit hard to see these players just stop playing football. There’s no opportunity for them, and they just stop. It’s a little bit harsh, it’s hard for me to believe.

Why can’t they just join another semi-pro team?

I know in the K3 Advanced there’s some teams that pay, or in the National League, but other teams don’t really pay well or are not really professional. Most of the players have had offers to go to the K3 but they don’t go because they feel the training is not really professional. The coaches are very old-school and the training is kind of old-fashioned. Some players just don’t want that. They want to improve, they don’t want to go to these teams and just play for the money in the K3 and not be in a professional environment.

Why should fans go and watch TNT FC?

I’ve seen teams in the K3. They all play a bit the same, and, well, the football’s a little too boring. People don’t really follow these teams, there’s no fans. When I was living in Goyang, I would speak to some people and ask them what they thought about Goyang Hi. They didn’t know there was a football club. There’s no connection between the club and the community, people didn’t even know about the club, just 80 people watching in that massive stadium.

TNT wants to be a little bit different, they want me to change the way we play. We’re going to be little bit more exciting, a bit more attractive, European style. We’re going to try to bring people to the stadium. The president used to live in France, and we’ve got a foreign coaching team, and we’re based at Hyochang Stadium near Itaewon, so we’re hoping to try and bring some of the expat community to the stadium too.

What else does TNT FC do?

We run TNT Academy, where we train amateur players. We run sessions in Mapo and Dongdaemun, showing these guys what we do at the club. We do some different drills and some shooting, then have a game. Our idea is that these guys can become fans of TNT, they’re guys who like football, we’ve been doing it for about three months and we’ve got around 40 players. Hopefully they’ll become fans of TNT and come and watch us.



Be sure to follow both Steve and Coach Mario on Twitter, and get involved in the conversation there or by leaving a comment below!

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