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FC Avenir: The Club That Could Find Korea’s Jamie Vardy

Park Ji-sung has won the Premier League, the Champions’ League and played in the World Cup semi-finals in his spectacular career, but all of that almost didn’t happenHe was a skinny teenager and few could see his potential. One person who did was Kim Hee-tae, head coach of Myongji University. He pulled some strings to get Park into the university team, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Years later, Kim Hee-tae's wife, Im Young-ju, now runs the Korea youth football center in Pocheon, and was on the same flight to Kuala Lumpur as me this August. We were both heading to Malaysia to witness the start of a project that aims to make sure future Park Ji-sung's don’t fall through the cracks.

Plenty of talented players do. Out of the thousands of South Koreans who play in high school football teams each year, more than half don’t make the cut for a university team. Of those who do get picked, only a hundred or so players get signed by a K League side, and only about 25 players will go on to have a playing career of twenty or more games. The situation is similar around the world, but unlike other countries, South Korea’s leagues are so underdeveloped that there is nowhere for these players to go once they drop out of the game. South Korea has roughly the same population as England, but lacks the hundred-odd professional and thousands of non-league clubs that give England’s late-developers a high enough level of training for players like John Stones, Harry Maguire and Jamie Vardy to reach their potential. Those players all came up through the lower leagues before eventually making the big-time. Would the Korean Jamie Vardy still be in the game at that point?

The failures of South Korea’s current system can easily be seen in how so many of the South Korean national team had to build their careers outside of this system. Moon Seon-min for example played in the 2018 World Cup and has been selected for Paulo Bento’s squad for the friendly matches against Costa Rica and Chile in September, but may not have become a professional footballer at all if not for winning a place at the Nike Academy in England. From there, he was spotted by then Östersunds FK manager Graham Potter. Most of Östersunds’ playing squad at that time had similar backgrounds to Moon. Potter found these overlooked players, some who were playing at the lowest levels of England’s non-league system, and fashioned a squad that kept winning and winning. They went from Sweden’s lower tiers all the way to beating Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in the Europa League. Moon had left for Djurgårdens before those later triumphs, but the squad still contained some of those original players who nobody except for Graham Potter saw any potential in. 

There are some people who are trying to at least mitigate the flaws in South Korea’s current system. TNT FC, for example, are an amateur team that exists to try and find professional players a new club. They only play friendly matches, and instead focus on improving players. Many former TNT FC players now play in the K League or in leagues outside of Korea, but without TNT FC, they would have had nowhere to go and their careers as footballers would have come to an abrupt end.

FC Avenir, which will hold trials this winter, plans to use a similar model, but is aimed at the high school footballers that the Korean system misses out on. The team is a partnership between football agents Inspired Asian Management, and HELP College of Arts and Technology. I was invited to Kuala Lumpur where the college is based to witness the signing of this partnership which will see FC Avenir’s students enroll on courses at the college while training and playing football matches.

FC Avenir's logo, with five stars and the Putrajaya bridge
symbolizing the link between Malaysia and Korea.
Inspired Asian Management’s CEO Lee Dong-jun says he aims for around ten percent of FC Avenir’s players to earn professional contracts, either at clubs in Korea or in other countries. The students who don’t make the grade will still have a UK-affiliated university degree and strong English language abilities to fall back on, helping ensure that they are less likely to suffer the same difficulties that affect many other professional footballers.

Like TNT FC in Korea, FC Avenir won’t play in a league. Rather, they will play friendly matches against some of Malaysia’s top professional teams and other teams from nearby countries like Hong Kong and Vietnam, with the team’s well-qualified coaches focusing on player development. Inspired Asian Management’s CEO Lee Dong-jun says he aims for around ten percent of FC Avenir’s players to earn professional contracts, either at clubs in Korea or in other countries. The students who don’t make the grade will still have a UK-affiliated university degree and strong English language abilities to fall back on, helping ensure that they are less likely to suffer the same difficulties that affect many other former athletes. 

From the Malaysian side, Lee says he and the team’s coaches will also scout FC Avenir’s Malaysian opposition, with the aim of bringing some Malaysian players to the K League in the future. Lee’s agency was behind Vietnamese international Lương Xuân Trường’s move to the K League a few seasons ago. Trường didn’t get much game time at Incheon United or Gangwon FC, but when he did play, he looked like he could cut it in the K League, and Lee said he will try to make sure that any Malaysians who go to Korea go to clubs more willing to give them minutes.
The K League is lagging behind Japan when it comes to building its football relationship with other Asian countries, although it is slowly moving in the right direction. 

The success of smaller European nations like Croatia or Belgium shows the importance of networks for football development. Europe’s networks have developed over a hundred years, with coaching and sports knowledge traveling between the countries, from Johan Cruyff taking Dutch football to Barcelona to Bob Houghton bringing the rough, direct English style to Scandinavia. For Asian football to grow, it not only needs to tap into European networks, but also needs to build a deeper Asian football network. 

The FC Avenir project shows the benefits of building this network. It will hopefully keep more potential Park Ji-sungs in the game, and will build links between Korean and Malaysian football, potentially growing the game in both countries. If it is successful, more clubs like it will be created. But it is still just one project, and for Asian football to keep growing, a more open-minded attitude is needed so that Asian countries can build on their strengths and find solutions to their weaknesses. 



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