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What's it like to play for Choi Yong-soo?

What's it like to play for Choi Yong-soo? FC Seoul Gangwon FC
Korean football legend and K League title-winning manager, Choi Yong-soo, will be in the away team dugout at Seoul World Cup Stadium for the very first time on April 6th when his current team Gangwon FC take on former employers FC Seoul. After leaving FC Seoul in 2020, it will be a reunion with the fans as well as some players in the home dressing room. But what is it like to play for Choi Yong-soo? An infamous figure in Korean football, a manager who has experienced extreme highs and desperate lows, KLU spoke to Dejan Damjanović, Osmar Ibáñez, Ikromjon Alibaev and Dino Islamović to find out what it's like to play for 'Doksuri'.

Wednesday's 2022 Hana 1Q K League 1 Round 8 match between FC Seoul and Gangwon FC won't be the first meeting between the two teams since Choi Yong-soo's appointment but it will be the first at Sangam, a place Choi called home as both a player and a manager over a number of different spells. But what is it like to play for Choi Yong-soo? 

The influence of Choi Yong-soo

There's a certain charisma about Choi Yong-soo. He has a way with words and, at times, speak almost entirely in one-liners. That charisma has helped him become a successful player and manager and is a factor in players wanting to play for him. That was the case for Osmar, he says, when with Buriram United in 2013 after noticing his presence on the touchline. 

Osmar, of course, was sent out on loan to J.League side Cerezo Osaka in 2018 by then FC Seoul manager Hwang Sun-hong but once Choi's returned to FC Seoul was confirmed, talks began and, eventually, he signed a a three-year deal. When asked whether Choi was a big factor in his return to the club Osmar says it was "everything": 

"I wasn't ready to come back, to be honest. I wanted to stay in Japan and find another club because Cerezo they didn't want to make a contract with me. And when he came back to Seoul we start talking a little bit. It changed everything because in the end, I could have [played] for any team but I think it's very important to play for a coach who will respect you and treat you well and let you play with freedom and have all the confidence in you. That's really, really important for us (foreign players), not just the uniform that you wear. And once he came back, everything changed."

Dejan Damjanović returned to FC Seoul in 2015 ahead of the 2016 season. It has been no secret that Choi had a huge say in Dejan's return, persuading the board that the then 34-year-old still had plenty to give:

"Everybody knows my relationship with Choi Yong-soo, my Korean father. And yes, he's the main reason why I came back in 2016 in FC Seoul and he is the main reason why I didn't stay in China anymore. And he is the guy who made the decision. Everybody else they can say yes or no, they can accept and not accept, complain not complain, support that decision or not. But he's the guy who choose 'I want up Dejan to be back. I know Dejan can help me. I know what he can do on the pitch, off the pitch' and he's the main reason why I came back. 

"And I'm happy that that 2016, even after the ups and downs we did a great season. In the end, we beat Jeonbuk, we won the title. Even if he was not there in the second part of the season he is the guy who made the squad, he chose the players, he signed all the winners, he knew that that team could do great things and I'm sorry that he didn't stay for all season because I'm sure we will be champions anyway."

Training

But what's Choi like on the training ground? Ikromjon Alibaev joined FC Seoul before the 2019 season after Choi had scouted him while on commentator duty for the Asian Games. The Uzbekistan international admits that he was "surprised" to find out that Choi had spotted him and didn't know until much later. Alibaev spent 18-months under Choi and says that training was good and the mood depended on recent results:

"Training is fun if you are winning games, if you lose then the next training is very hard. He doesn't say much. The tactical parts he does all himself but let's other coaches do things like warmups. He never just stands there and watches, he always participates. Training is aggressive, he wants you to play aggressively. If not he shouts at you."


FNR

Dejan had similar sentiments: "If I remember, well, he always we had meetings before the training, he approved what we're gonna do today, and they prepared the training. Of course, he's there. He's watching, you know, sometimes joking with foreigners, sometimes it could be some Korean players. He was involved in training, but not like, all the time stopping the training and saying, you know? We were having coaches who can do that. When we make some bad results to draw or lose the game that we can, you know, it can be really tough for everyone. And I'm saying even for me, and I know how much he liked me but on training, we are all same and he knows like he knew it on training to yell on me for example. Everything what he's doing he did with some purpose. Never because he had something against somebody. He was always thinking for the team in front of everyone and he was that guy."

Choi, like Dejan, was a forward player and the two would joke about the prospect of them playing together in a two-man forward line:

"He was telling me 'Dejan, can you imagine if you and me played two top?' He was always the tough striker heading, really physical. I was different. You know, I can do that but I was you know, ball playing. He was always saying 'can you imagine you and me? We will score 100 goals.' I said 'of course, Coach.' But we missed each other for one year only in Korea. In 2006 he retired, 2007 I came Korea - I missed him for one year. 

"He stayed and watched all my shooting and sometimes even he wants to a couple of times shoot and you see that he had quality and you know he was different striker. But he never speak too much on training about these things. I think he trusted me a lot, I'm sure that he trusted me a lot because we stayed together for like five years and we did crazy things together and I think he had a lot of confidence in me and you know my routine is always after the training to stay 15-20 minutes with goalkeepers with a couple of young boys on the side we did extra shooting, extra crossing. He liked that. I was always like this, I never finished training and go locker room and probably he was enjoying coaching me, I'm sure he was enjoying coaching me."

Osmar and Dejan both won trophies under Choi Yong-soo

Osmar says that it "depends" and that if Choi needs to step in then he will:

"The way he feels, that's the way he acts. If he feels he has to step up and stop the training and talk he will and maybe another day he will step outside and just watch and let his assistants manage training. Every day was a little bit different which I think made everyone alert. We knew he was watching and any time he could step up. He's there watching, I think that's why he's called 'eagle'."

Osmar adds, though, that training was different after he came back to FC Seoul in 2018 compared to his first spell with the club and he was a bit more "relaxed":

"I think at the beginning because he didn't have much experience as a head coach, he needed results, you know, and he was focused on winning, winning, winning, winning. And when the time passed, he changed a little bit, (from) that point of view and focused a little bit more on how to train better, how to improve the players which will bring him results. Yeah, I think he changed a little bit."

Team Talks 

A rousing team talk can make all the difference but Dejan says that the messages Choi sent before and during games were "normal":

"He ever tell us some crazy stories or giving us some example. We are winners. He's coming on game [and showing] us what we need to do. 'Guys, today we need to win, we need to do this and guys be professional 100%, don't make me angry on the game, don't make me yelling', you know? Never joke but open friendly honest conversation that's all. When it's tough game everybody knows that he will first yell on me, Molina or Escudero or whoever was there at the time. 

"Of course, we were the guys who he choose to help the team when it's hard and I was very clear with that situation, I know my responsibility and my job and that's all. Everybody understand well not only me, Molina and everybody else so we were the guys who push the team when it's not going good, when it's going good it's very easy so very simple conversation with us especially before the game and then after the game. Like I said, always depends on the results when we are winning everything is smoothly smiling. 'let's go.' When it's bad (he's) quiet probably he will give us day off to cool down everyone and then from next day let's go again full power, full training, full pressure, nobody smiling we need to win next game."

Alibaev: "He is good at team talks, gives good instructions and motivation. He gets angry at halftime sometimes but if you win, it doesn't matter how you play, the result is everything and the performance comes next."

Osmar: "It was much more leadership or motivational speeches than tactical things. Unless, obviously, we needed something specific for that game. Or maybe his assistant or his analyst came and told him something was happening and then he pointed out some slight changes. But he believed a lot more in  the motivational speeches and making the players confident and trust and that we are better, that we are going to win."

Osmar also echoed Dejan's sentiments that there was always a reason for the things that Choi did or said: "He always had a plan, where I could feel that his words, were always for a reason, he was never speaking in vain. And even though that team was winning, and he got a bit angry, there was a reason for that, you know, maybe (to show) it was not the place to relax too much. There was a reason always, that's, that's what I could feel and that's what I liked about him. You can never relax at any point with him, which made the team usually better."

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Man Management

The key for Choi, it seems, certainly in times of success, was not so much about how he approached games from a tactical perspective, but how he was able to motivate top players and keey 20-odd egos in check at the same time.

Dejan: "You need man-management. You need somebody who can control 25 players. You need somebody who can balance the team make everyone happy, make everybody happy on training after training on the game after the game playing not playing. who you need to expect more you need to push them more with who you need to approach different if somebody is like child, somebody have mentality like this, somebody have tough character. Men management is everything in football, especially in big teams. And he was in victim that time. For many years. Sepsis always was one of the best teams in in Asia, not only Korea, so he was smart. He knew it. We are ready. We don't need to do any tactical things."

Montenegro international striker Dino Islamović who currently plays for Choi, says that expects a lot from his players: 

"Well, I think he's demanding, very demanding. For me, I like it. I think he's honest. He will give you credit if you do well and I think he will tell you that if you're not doing well. "

Choi watches on as FC Seoul lose 6-0 to Daegu FC, 14th June 2020
Osmar: "He knew his best point. I think he was controlling the egos of every player, that was his best point. And I think it's not easy, you know, to control a group of 20 or 30 players, and to have them all under control. So difficult."

But Alibaev wasn't too impressed with Choi's man-management style: "He doesn't like to speak one on one with players. He never really spoke to me. Just once in nearly two years. I asked why I wasn't playing. I played against Gangwon but then wasn't in the 18 after. He told me I wasn't in good condition but that was just one time. Man management is not his strongest side."

Choi is perhaps known for liking foreign players, something which Osmar agrees with but the standards are set very high: 

"As a foreigner, you have to give him everything. He signed you, he chose you so you have to not come here and just look after yourself. You have to give him back all this. Once you do that, he will give you everything and you will feel respected and not left alone, like a part of a team."

Dejan: "He's the guy who... can one of the guys, not too many in Korea, I must say you know, I was long time there and some of them will agree some not, but man everybody knows that Korean coaches have a lot of problems with foreigners - that's true. They cannot use well the foreigners especially foreigners with a tough character and he's the guy who can control that, he's very smart. He knows how to balance the team, he knows who is playing for the team, who is doing against him. Just smart, he's very smart and every conversation, every decision, in every situation he's doing well, you know?" 

Tactics & Philosophy

Dino Islamović is praiseful of Choi's tactical approach to games: 

"Tactically, I think, he is very good. Like what I said before about the K League that, tactically, can get better, I think he's one of them that is very good tactically. I think he's also been a striker so I'm trying to learn things from him also."

Alibaev, meanwhile, says that Choi has his own style and likes to stick to it: 

"He likes the formation 5-3-2. I like this too. Even if we lose he doesn't change, even after the 6-0 against Daegu. He has his own identity and style. When Kim Ho-young came in to help him things changed a bit but before that he didn't change much." 

Alibaev spent 18 months under Choi Yong-soo from 2019-2020

Dejan believes that, especially during the 2012 season when FC Seoul went onto win the league under Choi, he didn't need to say to much tactically. The team was ready-made to be successful: 

"When you have good team, when you are in good team, great team, big team in any country, generally, the great players are ready to play to win something, you didn't bring them now to work with them (for a) couple of years to make some of them, to sell them or something like this. You are built to win something, you pay that players a lot. So you bring done fixed players ready for (the) game. That time you don't need coach tactical, unbelievable. 

"When you have players like for example in Seoul that that couple of years, what you need to do what you need to say to Ha Dae-sung, Adilson, Molina, Molina, Dejan, and (Go) Yo-han, (Koh) Myong-jin, I don't know, (Park) Chu-young, I will forget some of them. They were ready. They were ready. They already have titles behind them, (were) great finalists, (had) great career (with) national teams, you don't need to coach them, you need man-management, you need to make everybody together happy. And he was great in this and I'm sure he's still doing that."

Osmar: "His style of play, he also changed. I think, at the beginning when he needed wins, he was building his own career as a head coach, he was a little bit more conservative then he started changing. He let the players have more freedom or more things that we wanted. He trusted more in the players but the key here is he knew who to trust. Usually, we are 20 or 30 players, you cannot trust everybody to do what they want - there would be anarchy. But he always had two or three players who he trusted and give them more freedom, even to lead the team on the pitch and do different things that were not planned or trained. But he kind of changed that way in order to get better results and play more attractive football."

Choi's FC Seoul departure

Choi Yong-soo had won the K League title in 2012 in his first season as a manager, reached the ACL Final in 2013 and lost on the ever-cruel away goals rule, won the FA Cup in 2015, and was the man who, in essence, built the team which pipped Jeonbuk to the title in 2016. He left in the summer of 2016 to join Jiangsu Sunning in the Chinese Super League, spent a year there before returning to Seoul in 2018. 

He eventually saved them from relegation that year and guided the fallen giants back to the AFC Champions League after finishing third in 2019. But, Seoul limped their way into third place with a lacklustre end to the season. The team's form wasn't great in the first half of 2020 either and Choi's time at the club came to an end in the summer. 

The 6-0 away loss to Daegu FC was the tipping point and was a game which seemed to sum FC Seoul up, a combination of misfortune and off-the-field decisions coming back to haunt them. Seoul scored not one but two own goals that evening and then Dejan came off the bench to fire in the sixth, at a time when the club had decided not to re-sign him when he had become available after leaving Suwon Bluewings.

Although Dejan scored his first goal for Daegu that night, he doesn't look back on that game with any fondness whatsoever:

"I was trying to forget that game you know even I was, you know, I enjoyed Daegu but I hate to play against FC Seoul, you know my feeling with FC Seoul and I saw that they collapse, they struggle, they lose the spirit. That's the worst when players start thinking they cannot win, they give up before the game. You feel that when you are on the game, I see that they give up. And it (was a) really tough moment for him (Choi) and I know he was you know, furious, furious after this game and I scored a goal, of course, I'm professional and if I could score I would score three that game, just to be clear. But I don't like to see Seoul in that kind of situation. 

"And after the game I was you know waiting, waiting for coach to see him. You know because I know even if he's furious, I want to see (him), I want to speak with him just for one minute. And it was tough. It was tough. I never saw him in that kind of that tough situation like that, that moment with FC Seoul, they were like losing couple of games, concede like 15 goals in three or four games. It was unbelievable, man. I don't know what happened."

Osmar looks back on that particular period with regret as he was out injured and unable to help on the pitch:

"It was strange, because he was like 'Seoul guy', it was a good match to this club. And it was difficult for me as well, because I was injured for his last five or six games, so I couldn't be there and help. I don't know if that would that would have changed anything or not. But yeah, I was kind of sorry to see him go while I was out injured."

Alibaev, of course, played in that 6-0 loss to Daegu and admits he wasn't surprised that Choi left the club:

"I was not surprised. We felt it. Our results were very bad. In the Daegu game, we were 3-0 down at halftime. He just said that we needed to show up and score - normal things. After the game he didn't shout, just ignored. Training was even harder than normal after and he didn't even speak to the players."

Reaction to Choi joining Gangwon

Choi Yong-soo left FC Seoul in the summer of 2020 but returned to management with Gangwon FC in the winter of 2021, helping the Bears survive relegation. in a situation that was almost identical to when he rejoined FC Seoul. 

When speaking to KLU last summer, Dejan said he believed that Choi will be back "at some point" and that he wouldn't just choose "any club", it would have to be a project that is worth his while. Dejan believes now that Gangwon is a good match:

"Everybody knows the Lee Young-pyo is there as sports director, he's a good friend. And probably they have a great plan and some, some maybe three or five-year plan, how to bring Gangwon to the ACL. I'm sure that he think really good before he chose the team. Like I said, he's very smart person. He's not making a decision without thinking well before so I'm sure that he prepared everything and him and sporting director Lee Young-pyo for sure their good, good club plan how to bring Gangwon in ACL and to be competitive in this league."

Osmar: "I was a bit surprised, to be honest. But now that I see the way they play, the system they play it is a kind of good match."

Play for him again?

Taking everything into consideration, would Dejan, Osmar, and Alibaev play for Choi Yong-soo again? Alibaev said he would, despite his time under Choi ending on a bit of a sour note:

"I would play for him again. He is a good coach and a good person. I'd be very happy to play for him and I would like to come back to K League."

Dejan: "If he called me and if he think that I can help him and he asked me like whatever he need to tell me honestly, no faking, no nice stories, you can just tell me what you need. Can I help you? If I can help you, I will help you. If I cannot. I cannot say (to) him (I can), I will be very honest to him. If I think I can help him, I will come. If I cannot, I will say sorry I cannot help you like before. I don't want to make you any problem. So, you know with him I had always really always understanding, this honest relationship. So, whatever he needs, whatever he wants to ask, with me, it's very easy. Maybe not even maybe playing football, maybe tomorrow we can work together you never know. But with him, I am very, very easy to communicate."

Osmar: "Depend on many things because my situation now is different. I have to also think about the family about the kids is nice. I cannot say yes or no, it's It depends. Depends on the situation when the time comes if the situation is doable or not. I would say but I cannot say now yes or no."


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