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Hwang Sun-hong's Failure and the Future of the U-23 National Team

South Korea bowed out of the U-23 Asian Cup in Uzbekistan at the quarter-final stage following a 3-0 loss to Japan, marking its worst-ever finish in the competition after winning for the first time two years ago.  The team lacked execution and chemistry at critical times but observers hint that several other factors were at play, notably the tactical malaise of Hwang Sun-hong and mismanagement in the initial hiring process by the KFA.  Hwang, once celebrated as a successful manager at league level several years ago, seems to be on the decline in recent years, making his appointment even more questionable.  KLU's Branko Belan has a closer look. 

Failure in Uzbekistan

South Korea came to Uzbekistan as defending champions and was expected to make another deep run into the tournament as perennial favorites to repeat.  While things seemingly got off to a good start with a 4-1 victory over Malaysia, the scoreline at the end of the match looked a lot more flattering than the overall performance.  Cho Young-wook was the difference-maker, scoring twice in the space of four minutes to put the result beyond doubt.  The match against Vietnam was disappointing, to say the least as it finished 1-1, leaving Korea needing to win their final group match against Thailand to progress to the knockout stage.  A minimal 1-0 win over the War Elephants thanks to a 35th minute strike from Go Jae-hyeon set up a quarter-final showdown with bitter rivals Japan.

What ensued was nothing short of a morbid scenario.  When Yuito Suzuki put the Samurai Blue ahead just over twenty minutes into the match, there was little response from Hwang Sun-hong's men.  In fact, the soon-to-be outgoing champions conceded two more goals in the second half, including Suzuki securing his brace with ten minutes to play, as the Taeguk Warriors ended the tournament with their worst-ever result, having at least made it to the semifinals of each of the previous competitions.

Hwang was largely to blame for the failure and took responsibility for the result, but it doesn't change the fact that he completely failed to set his team up tactically, not to mention his lineup selections were incoherent at best, as Oh Se-hun, who starred at the 2020 edition of the tournament, started just once, and never found his rhythm.  Cho Young-wook was quickly turning into one of the players of the tournament, yet played mostly from the bench.  The team lacked cohesion and chemistry, and that was never more evident than in the match against Japan, where the younger side dominated proceedings from the opening whistle.

Hwang's appointment was always under scrutiny from the time the official announcement was made, and so far, he hasn't lived up to expectations, and, although several observers believe he should be removed from his post, the KFA has stated that he will stay on as manager until the Summer Olympic Games in Paris in 2024.  This can be seen as problematic because the Asian Games, which were originally scheduled to be held this year in China, have officially been put on hold until 2023 with new dates yet to be decided, so it now becomes even more difficult to chart the progression of potential talent coming into the side in the next year or so.  That is to say, without competitive football, it will be challenging to ascertain growth within the squad on a true scale when there is nothing to play for.  Without a barometer as a measuring point, team building will also become much more difficult, especially under a problematic manager.

Organizational Mismanagement

Kim Pan-gon became manager of the Malaysian men's football team in January, 2022. Photo Credit: The Star
Kim Pan-gon was the technical director of the KFA at the time of Hwang Sun-hong's appointment as manager of the U-23 national team in September of last year.  There were three other candidates up for consideration, but it was Hwang who received the nod.  For some, it was a questionable appointment as his last managerial stint in the K League ended badly, and many felt there were better choices for the position.

“Hwang has rich experience from his professional coaching career over the years, winning the K League and the FA Cup twice respectively. It’s fair to say that he rates as a successful coach in terms of organizing his teams and nurturing young talents,” Kim said when Hwang was named.  Name recognition also could have played a role, as the former South Korean international played 103 times for his country and ranks second in goals with fifty, behind only Cha Bum-kun.  

But, in January 2022, Kim resigned from his position to take on the head coaching job with the Malaysian national team, who have now qualified for next year's Asian Cup, ending a 42 year drought.  However, while still with the KFA, he had an inconsistent record with hiring practices, at times failing to conduct proper background checks of potential hires, which later led to scandals.

Was his decision to take the Malaysia job an attempt not only to mask his own shortcomings but also to divert attention away from the fact that he may have chosen the wrong man for the job?

Once a Studded Manager

Hwang Sun-hong won his second K League first division title with FC Seoul in 2016.
Hwang Sun-hong's coaching career started all the way back in 2006 as an assistant with Jeonnam Dragons.  He didn't begin to enjoy real success on the sidelines until he moved to Pohang Steelers, where he won two FA Cups and a league title in 2013, capping off a league-cup double that year.  That was followed by a move to FC Seoul, where he once again won the league with the red and black in 2016.  During that successful run, he was named Manager of the Year following all of his major victories in 2011/12, 2012/13, and 2015/16.  His time with FC Seoul would come to an end in 2018 after a poor string of performances by the team at the beginning of the season.

It was at this time that his downward spiral began.  He moved to China after reaching an agreement to coach Yanbian Funde at the end of 2018, but never saw the sideline as the club was mired in financial trouble and internal strife, prompting him to leave the club shortly thereafter.  He next took the reins of Daejeon Hana Citizen ahead of the 2020 campaign, with the expectation of winning automatic promotion to K League 1 after it joined Hana Financial Group and a large cash influx was provided to the club to bolster the roster.  Hwang had been doing relatively well, with the team in third, eighteen rounds into the season, but he was let go in what was seen as a curious move.  

He stayed away from coaching until he was named the manager of the U-23 national team last September.  Once again, the bar was set high, as he was charged with putting together a squad to repeat as champions at the Asian Cup this summer, but he fell well short of the intended goal, and must now pick up the pieces and salvage what he can in the shortest amount of time, otherwise, he may be approaching the end of his line sooner than later.

What Happens Next?

When Hwang originally signed his contract, part of the terms were that he would be evaluated following the Asian Games, which were to take place this year, but since they have been pushed to 2023, he will stay on until after the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.  What will the team look like by then?  All of the players who went to Uzbekistan will be eligible for the Asian Games next year, but come the Games in Paris, the makeup of the squad will look markedly different.

Following South Korea's early exit from the U-23 Asian Cup, Hwang pledged he would do everything in order to improve the team and increase their competitiveness in future competitions.  Whether things will materialize in that matter is another consideration entirely.  He will most certainly have to draw on previous successes in his managerial career to find the motivation to produce winning results, as what was on display in Uzbekistan was much further from what was expected.  He's been given a pass, nominally, but if he can't right the ship and convince the players to trust him, his time on the sideline may soon be up.

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