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Exclusive Interview: 'I want to go to Europe as fast as I can', Hwang Inbeom

Vancouver Whitecaps and Korean international midfielder Hwang Inbeom has become a fans favourite at BC Place Stadium but the 23 year-old still has his heart set on a move to Europe, and aims to be there as quickly as possible. Associate Editor Paul Neat had the privilege of sitting down with Hwang Inbeom for an exclusive interview during which he talks about his dream club, his first season in MLS, his preferred position, and much more.

On a chilly December morning outside a trendy coffee shop in the affluent Yuseong district of Daejeon, Hwang Inbeom offers a warm greeting as I just about make it on time for our 11 o'clock meeting. We shake hands and exchange pleasantries then proceed to go inside where I attempt to remind him of our only previous face-to-face encounter, a brief exchange in the mixed zone at Daejeon World Cup Stadium prior to Daejeon Citizen's 1-0 win over Gwangju FC in the K League 2 Promotion Playoff semi-final in November 2018. He didn't remember, but at the time, given that he was omitted from the starting lineup that night due to injury, I distinctly remember thinking that this would almost certainly the final time anyone would see the 'Son of Daejeon' at Purple Arena in an official capacity. What beckoned was a move away; many expected him to be Europe bound but instead the 23 year-old headed for MLS with Vancouver Whitecaps.

The Whitecaps finished bottom of the Western Conference in 2019 after winning just eight, drawing 10 and losing 16 of their 34 matches. It was a tough first season for Hwang who, at 23 years old, and with a lot of games under his belt already, knows that he and the team can do better in 2020.

"I'm not satisfied because we are the worst team in the league", he says. "I didn't play so well in some games. Of course, sometimes I played very well in some games but I know that I could do a better job as a DP (Designated Player). Next season, if I stay in Vancouver for half a year or one year I want to do much better than last season - it was very tough for me."

The rigours of the game in North America have clearly taken their toll on Hwang. With long flights from Vancouver to places like Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles to name but a few, travelling via airplane for four or fives hours at a time is not easy. Nor is playing on artificial pitches, something which many teams in MLS are forced to do because of the adverse weather conditions.

Hwang Inbeom made 34 appearances for the Whitecaps in 2019. (image via Vancouver Whitecaps)
"[In] MLS, they have a lot of travel and some of the teams they have artificial turf, it's very tough. I was so tired, as I said they have a lot of travel and I had to come back to Korea for the national team, then go back to Vancouver. Sometimes I have to go to [for example] Turkey, Turkmenistan, Lebanon, and North Korea. It was very tough for me and [it is] was my first time to play abroad so next season I can be better, for sure. I took a rest so now I have to keep working and keep doing and preparing for the next season."

The 'Son of Daejeon', as he is known by fans of his former club Daejeon Citizen, has become something of a household name in Korea over the last 18 months. His rise to stardom began with an Asian Games gold medal in 2018 with performances that caught the eye of current Korean National Team Head Coach Paulo Bento and is now a regular for the Taeguk Warriors.

Hwang Inbeom, though, began is career with his hometown club Daejeon Citizen, making his debut in 2015 and going on to make around 100 appearances, score 16 goals and lay on 13 assists in all competitions. And although he may not don the famous 'purple' shirt of Daejeon Citizen any longer, those that saw the young star when he did are nonetheless still very proud of him, perhaps even more so. Even over 8,000 kilometres away, he will always be the 'Son of Daejeon' and is seemingly set to have that nickname for life. Citizen fans have had very little to smile about for the last decade, bar the 2014 K League Challenge (K League 2) title, and so when a homegrown star comes through the ranks and goes onto represent the nation, there is an enormous collective sense of pride. I ask him about the nickname to which he offers a wry smile of both pride and embarrassment as he talks about what it means to him. "It was an honour for me", he declares. "And it made me be stronger, when I hear this nickname I want to try and do my best and I want to do better. It's an amazing nickname I think."

If Hwang is the Son of Daejeon then the Citizen fans are his extended family, quite a number of whom have travelled all the way to Vancouver just to see him play. "I was very surprised by the fans [coming to Vancouver], especially the Daejeon fans; they love me without any complaints or blame. The Korean fans, who supported the national team, they cheer me or [sometimes] blame me, but Daejeon fans are not - they just love me. I'm very grateful for the support, when I see them I want to do my best of best and I want to prove to the fans that I can be better so I want to keep working hard for them."

Self-improvement was a definite theme throughout our conversation. In the spotlight of the Korean National Team, criticism is expected - even the likes of Son Heungmin, national team captain and media darling, isn't impervious to supporter pressure. For Inbeom, as he is referred as Vancouver, it's not as if the honeymoon period is over for per se, but he is no longer a newcomer to the full national team and, given the high standards he has already set himself, fans are demanding consistency.

In the build up to and during the 2018 Asian Games, Hwang flew in under the radar, perhaps because he was playing in the second tier still, but his performances during those Asian Games clearly gave Head Coach Paulo Bento food for thought. The Portuguese called Hwang up ahead of his first matches as Head Coach with youth and the future clearly part of his thought process. Hwang made his first appearances in two friendly matches, Costa Rica at Goyang Civic Stadium and Chile at Suwon World Cup Stadium in September 2018, coming on as a substitute in both matches to replace Nam Taehee in the 80th minute, and Jung Wooyoung in the 74th minute against Costa Rica and Chile respectively.

Hwang scoring his first goal for Korea in a 2-2 draw with Panama in October 2018. (image via KFA)
Since then, Hwang has started more often than not and has become a mainstay in Bento's starting XI, racking up 23 caps and scoring three goals. The first of Hwang's goals came in the 2-2 draw with Panama in October 2018 in what was his first full start. Figuring out which role suit's Hwang best is seemingly something which Bento and his team have been trying to determine themselves having utilised him as a traditional number six, eight, or even a 10 over the course of his 23 caps. It is as an eight where Hwang comes alive, using his vision and ability to pick out a pass where other players of his age just don't seem to know how to. Being a regular starter is "fantastic", he beams, but he knows that his place is not guaranteed. "I want to do better, I can be better," is how he assesses his time in the full national team thus far.

After a quick warm up question, a First Touches if you will, where I tested his memory of which squad numbers he had worn throughout his career so far, the conversation turned to the variety of roles, or the numbers usually associated with those on-field roles, which he has played whilst representing Korea:

"I prefer number eight to six or 10 because I like to play and do running from our own half to their half, and our penalty box to their penalty box. I don't like to play like [Sergio] Busquets, too deep, so I think number eight is the most comfortable position for me but at the same time I have to adapt to play number six or number 10 because this will be of benefit to me."

Hwang Inbeom celebrates scoring against Jeonbuk Hyunai Motors in July 2015.
From the moment Hwang burst onto the scene as a fresh-faced 18 year-old in 2015, Daejeon's last season in the top flight, it has been clear that he was destined for bigger and better things than the lower reaches of the K League Classic. For the time being, Hwang has one year left on his Young Designated Player contract with Vancouver Whitecaps but it is widely known that he sees his long term future in Europe. A move away from the Whitecaps could come sooner rather than later should the right offer come in, but when the three times K League 2 best XI member will make the move is still unclear:

"I don't know, the club know that' Inbeom wants to play in Europe'. I don't want to be hasty to the clubs, [because] I still want to play in Europe. If I can go to Europe this winter, I will go - next summer as well [I could go]. I want to be there as fast as I can. Before, I'd like to play in Germany because there was and there are a lot of Asian players, and Korean players [in Bundesliga] so it means they like Asian players and as I heard from Koo [Jacheol] and Ji Dongwon, Bundesliga likes Korean players' ambition, attitude of playing, so it made me want to play in Germany.

"But now, when I saw my friend Hwang Heechan in [UEFA] Champions League, I think this is my way to grow as a player. Even if I can't go to Germany or [English] Premier League, or Serie A in Italy directly, I can go to Europe step by step like Hwang Heechan - I can go to Belgium, or Scotland. He made me realise that there is more than one possibility. My dream club is Dortmund because they have amazing fans, that's why I want to play there. I want to be there." 
     
All K League United Patreon subscribers can listen to the full interview now. Hwang Inbeom talks about his heroes growing up, who the best players he has played with an against are, what he hates about MLS, as well as what he thinks K League can learn from Major League Soccer.

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