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"I had dreamed of being able to wear the captain's armband": Kang Sang-woo


Kang Sang-woo

Kang Sang-woo has been one of the biggest revelations in the Korean football circuit in the last couple of seasons. The 28-year-old's exploits have seen him make his senior national team debut this year. The left-back is now all set to lead Pohang Steelers in the 2021 AFC Champions League final to be played on November 23. Ahead of the grand finale, the Pohang star spoke to K League United in an exclusive conversation about him. Shibajee Das traces the rise of Kang Sang-woo after years of obscurity.

Early Career

The South Korea squad for the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup consisted of several young talents. Among the 21-man travelling squad to Turkey was Kyung Hee University's Kang Sang-woo. The Koreans were pitted in Group B alongside Portugal, Nigeria and Cuba. 

After a 2-1 victory over Cuba in their opening match, South Korea picked up a valuable point over group favourites Portugal in their next outing. However, a narrow 1-0 defeat to Nigeria meant that the Koreans ended up finishing in third place. Four points from three matches were good enough for the team to progress to the knockout rounds as the best third-placed team.    

In the Round of 16, South Korea conceded a 94th-minute equaliser against Colombia but ultimately ended up winning the contest after a dramatic penalty shootout. Kang Sang-woo was one of several Koreans who confidently dispatched their penalties in an 8-7 success. The quarter-final clash against Iraq would be a mirror image of the previous round. This time, the Koreans scored a 122nd-minute goal to take the match into a penalty shootout. However, as fate would have it they succumbed in the quarter-finals after a heartbreaking penalty shootout defeat.

The following year Kang made his K League 1 debut for Pohang Steelers against Jeju United. In the year 2015, he picked up his first major silverware. Kang Sang-woo was named in the U-23 Korea Republic team for the prestigious King's Cup in Thailand. He was a crucial component of the team as they lifted the trophy after an unbeaten campaign.  

Breakthrough at Sangju Sangmu

It wasn't until 2019 that Kang Sang-woo finally found his groove. Over the years, he had been a bit-part player at Pohang and could never really cement his place in the team. In January 2019, Kang joined Sangju Sangmu to undergo his military service. However, the move turned out to be the biggest boon in his career. Under Kim Tae-wan, Kang rediscovered himself.

A stellar 2020 campaign would see Kang Sang-woo finally begin to fulfill his potential. He guided Sangju Sangmu to an emphatic 4th place finish in the league. But the team would have to go down in the second-tier due to relocation to Gimcheon for the following season.

Sangju Sangmu

Kang returned to Pohang Steelers at the back end of last season. He immediately went on to cement his place in the left-back slot and finished the season strongly. Kang's performances during the season wouldn't go unnoticed.

He scored seven goals and recorded a league-high 12 assists, with no other player able to get into double digits. In addition to winning the K League Top Assistor award, Kang Sang-woo was also named in the K League Best XI. The full-back was finally coming of age and was ready to shine alongside the country's finest.

Teacher-student relationship

One of the biggest reasons behind Kang Sang-woo's revival has been Kim Gi-dong. Not surprisingly, Kang was full of praise for the master tactician. 

"The first thing is communication. He communicates very well with the players. Because there is a typical Korean teacher-student dynamic, sometimes I can sense that there are difficulties. But, the manager sometimes likes to be the one making jokes and he has created an environment where the players can speak to him honestly."

Having lost several of the team's standout players from last season, Pohang struggled to reach the heights domestically this season. But the story has been completely different in the AFC Champions League mainly due to Kim Gi-dong's astute management. Kang Sang-woo was quick to defend his manager for the league campaign but heaped praise on him for what the team has been able to achieve in the continental competition.

"The analysis that we do on the opposition is very good, I think. There are no right or wrong answers in football. We as a team have our strengths, but we can also overcome other teams' strengths. While highlighting what we are good at, the manager is also good at finding what to exploit in the opposition. Of course, out on the pitch, it's up to the players to put that into practice and sometimes we aren't able to do what the manager wants exactly. So I've never thought that the bad results were due to tactical reasons."

The secret behind the unusual number choice

Before the start of the 2021 K League season, teams began to reveal their squad numbers. Much of the talk was regarding Pohang, with the Steelers having handed out the number 10 jersey to left-back Kang Sang-woo. Several people were taken by surprise at the decision but Kang Sang-woo has proved his doubters wrong. 

"Last year when I came back after finishing my military service there was no numbers other than 13. This year, I wanted 17 but Shin Kwang-hoon wanted that number so I couldn't take it. I thought about what number I could pick. Lee Young-pyo was a right-footed left-back who wore 10 for the national team. I wanted to play for the national team like Lee Young-pyo did and so I thought 10 would be a good number. I spoke to Kim Gi-dong about it and he gave me permission to use it."

Following in the footsteps of his idol Lee Young-pyo, Kang has shown his versatility this season. In a period when main man Borys Tashchy was struggling for goals, Kang Sang-woo provided the spark on more than one occasion. His ability on the ball saw Kim Gi-dong use him in a more advanced left-wing position to try and unlock the opposition defence. 

In the recent league fixtures against Gangwon FC and Gwangju FC, manager Kim used him on the flanks right from the start. The move paid dividends with Kang Sang-woo scoring in both matches. The natural full-back has netted four goals in the league, while also chipping in with two crucial strikes in the ACL. Kang is willing to play out of his comfort zone for the team's goodwill in order to achieve the necessary results.

"At the moment, playing under Kim Gi-dong, left-back is the most comfortable. Every manager has a different style. The style of football that the manager wants will determine what my most comfortable position is, I think."

Dream national team debut

Considered a pioneering full-back in Korean football history, Lee Young-pyo won more than 100 international caps for his country and starred for the national team during their historic run to the semi-finals in the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
Kang Sang-woo also wanted to wear the Taegeuk Warriors shirt one day. His lifelong dream finally came true in June this year. At the Goyang Stadium, Kang came off the bench to make his senior national team debut in a FIFA World Cup Qualifier against Sri Lanka.
"It was a dream that became a reality so I was incredibly happy. No matter how much time I was given to play, I just wanted to be able to play with confidence. By loudly asking for the ball, when the ball did come to me, be looking like I was trying to break forward. I just thought about making sure that I did the things I am best at well." 


Kang Sang-woo harbours hopes of playing in next year's FIFA World Cup in Qatar but is staying grounded and is focused on concentrating on the opportunities that lie ahead.
He has been an unused substitute in all of South Korea's third-round World Cup qualifying matches to date. Paulo Bento has once again included him in the upcoming matches against the United Arab Emirates and Iraq.
"Like I am doing now when chances come to play for the national team, I think good things will come of it if I take them. There's still over a year left (for the 2022 FIFA World Cup), during that time it will depend on what my performances are like."

Leading by example

Kang Sang-woo was named as the Pohang Steelers vice-captain before the start of the season. However, the absence of regular club captain Oh Beom-seok means Kang has ended up wearing the captain's armband for the majority of the season.
"Even when I was at school I never got the chance to be a captain. It feels amazing to be able to wear the captain's armband, I had dreamed of being able to wear one. I am the club's vice-captain but you can feel the extra responsibility when you wear the armband. It's like that phrase: 'You have to bear the weight of the crown'. To be able to captain Pohang, the team I made my professional debut with, is a huge honour for me. It meant that the manager has a lot of faith in me and for that, I am very thankful."

After the mid-season departure of fan-favourite Song Min-kyu, Pohang has had to rely on youngsters like Lee Seung-mo and Lee Ho-jae in their squad. Being one of the more experienced heads in the squad, Kang Sang-woo has led by example not just on the field but off it as well.

"In the beginning, as a rookie, if you can come out of matches unscathed then you're lucky. Nine out of ten players will find things difficult at first, I think. I was one of those players who found things difficult so the younger players will find things tough but I tell them to have a never-give-up mindset. Most players are in the position they find themselves in now because they didn't give up, and if you endure it now then good things will come of it, it will make you brave and be of help to you."

ACL Final 2021

Shin Kwang-hoon is someone who has seen Kang Sang-woo's rise firsthand. Kang also spoke about how Shin cites him as an example to young players coming through the ranks at Pohang.

"Shin Kwang-hoon too he says to the younger players 'Kang Sang-woo, when he first joined the first team, I had no idea he would go on to become the player he is now'. So, it just shows that you don't know how things will be after a few years."

In just over two weeks' time, Kang Sang-woo is all set to lead Pohang Steelers in the 2021 AFC Champions League final against Al Hilal, to be held in Riyadh. Suddenly finding himself in the limelight, Kang now has the opportunity to cement himself among the continent's greats in what is set to be the biggest match in his career.

Shibajee Das & Paul Neat

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