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Kim Min-jae Inks Deal With SSC Napoli

After much speculation about his future, Kim Min-jae officially signed a new contract with Serie A side SSC Napoli.  He will have some big shoes to fill as the replacement for Kalidou Koulibaly, the Senegalese international, who spent eight seasons at the Italian club, racking up more than two hundred appearances before transferring to Chelsea in the summer transfer window.  The move comes at an opportune time, as Kim looks to regain his form following an injury layoff that kept him out of action for the national team for the cycle of friendly matches in June.  KLU's Branko Belan examines the significance of the move.
Photo Credit: SSC Napoli

First Move Abroad

After back-to-back title-winning seasons with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in K League 1, Kim made his first move abroad ahead of the 2019 season, joining Beijing Guoan where he spent two seasons, playing under the likes of Roger Schmidt and Bruno Génésio.  He was a regular when healthy and featured in two AFC Champions League campaigns with the club, the highlight being a run to the quarterfinals in 2020 where they were knocked out by eventual champions Ulsan Hyundai, the arch-nemesis of his former Korean club.

Things took a turn for the worse last year, however, when it became public knowledge in China that he had been critical of his teammates in an interview in the Korean media which was later translated into Chinese.  He was then denied the opportunity by the club to represent South Korea at the Tokyo Summer Games after a potential transfer to Portuguese side FC Porto fell through.  

Leaving a Mark in Turkey

Kim Min-jae quickly established himself as one of the key cogs in the side during his time in Turkey. Photo Credit: Transfermarkt
Kim's next stop would be Turkish Super Lig side Fenerbahçe S.K., where he almost instantly became a club hero.  He started all thirty-one matches he played in, helping the side to a second place finish in the league last season.

Despite his short spell at the club, he left a lasting impact.

"Kim Min-Jae was not only the best defender on Fenerbahçe, he was the best defender in the Süper Lig last season.  When Min-Jae first transferred to Turkey, I remember a lot of the Turkish fans being excited, but also a little skeptical about him.  He was clearly one of the top defenders in China (and the manager Vitor Pereira requested for him specifically), but he was also an Asian defender making the jump to a European league," Lee Han-shin explains.

"Unsurprisingly, the Korean Monster quickly quelled the fans' doubts with his strong performances and I think the moment he really became a fan favorite was when Fenerbahçe played their rivals Galatasaray in the Istanbul derby.  It was an away match and I remember Galatasaray fans setting up a "Squid Game" card section to intimidate the Fenerbahçe players," he continued. 

"The home team got off to a quick start via their star player Kerem Aktürkoğlu but fortunately, Fenerbahçe were able to quickly equalize through Mesut Ozil.  Then the real highlight of the game came in the 56th minute.  After a beautiful through ball by one of the Galatasaray midfielders, there was a clear goal scoring opportunity where three Galatasaray attackers raced towards the net with the ball.  Despite having a late reaction, Kim Min-Jae was able to sprint back and make an impeccable clearance that surely saved a goal," Lee recalls.  

"It was the highlight moment of a huge performance from the Korean Monster (6 clearances, 3 blocks, and 3 interceptions) in one of the biggest football derbies in the world.  From then on, Min-Jae continued to win the hearts of Fenerbahçe fans throughout the season with his aggressive, "no-nonsense" defending and beautiful buildup play.  Already, fans were getting worried that their best summer transfer might leave after just one season in Istanbul," he finished.

Transfer Saga

There was always a hint that Kim would make a move in this window.

"Then this summer came around and the hottest topic amongst Fenerbahçe fans was the Kim Min-Jae transfer saga.  They had just brought in a top manager (Jorge Jesus) and were vying for the Süper Lig title and Champions League qualification," Lee said.

"Central to those plans was Kim Min-Jae.  It was definitely a roller coaster of emotions this summer as a host of teams stated their interest in Kim Min-Jae's services.  As an example of how much the Fenerbahçe fans loved Min-Jae, they started a #StayWithUsKimMinJae movement on social media to convince the Korean Monster to stay in Istanbul," he added.

"I remember waking up that morning seeing all the tweets and posts and I realized exactly how much Kim Min-Jae meant to this club.  He was the best defender in Turkey, and one of the best defenders in Fenerbahçe history, despite only playing 1 season in Istanbul," Lee reminisces.

"Fenerbahçe is my Family"

Kim had mixed feelings about leaving Turkey.

"I regret to inform you of my sudden departure.  I am leaving Fenerbahçe.  I have gained a lot of experiences here.  I received overwhelming love and cheer from the fans.  I gave my everything for this club.  I am sad that I have to leave all this behind," he said. 

"Fenerbahçe is not a stepping stone, it is an important part of my football journey.  Fenerbahçe is my family and I will remember you deep in my heart.  I also thank my teammates and staff who fought for the same goal.  I love you, Fenerbahçe," Kim ended. 

Lee is adamant about Kim's impact on the Turkish giants.

"Kim Min-Jae came, Kim Min-Jae conquered, and he left his beloved team with transfer funds 4-5 times more than their initial investment.  Despite his sudden departure, I truly hope he remains loved in Turkey and one day returns to Fenerbahçe to lift that prestigious Süper Lig trophy," Lee concluded.

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Big Shoes to Fill

Kalidou Koulibaly spent eight seasons with the Gli Azzuri. Photo Credit: Transfermarkt
With the departure of Kalidou Koulibaly, Kim has a lot to live up to.  The Senegalese defender made over 200 appearances for the Italian club he has now left to join Chelsea.  Koulibaly spent eight years in Serie A, quickly becoming one of the league's most feared defenders.  Kim has a lot to live up to, but manager Luciano Spalletti is confident he can fill that role.

"The club is working to complete the squad and we need to find those figures who can bring us a little more security.  Kim is suited to Napoli, he is a Champions League level player,” the manager revealed at a recent press conference.

It presents a new challenge for Kim, but one that he should more than be able to live up to.

Chances in Qatar

Kim Min-jae will be a critical piece to South Korea's World Cup hopes. Photo Credit: Calcio Napoli
South Korea are pegged in a tough group with the likes of Portugal, Ghana, and Uruguay.  Kim needs to be a huge part of the equation as the anchor of the back line.  Having had success at all levels of the national team setup, he will be a key figure if the Taeguk Warriors have any chance of progressing past the group stage.

His presence is widely recognized.  But for him and the rest of the squad to shoot for a knockout phase placing, he needs to be healthy and on top of his game.  The move to a "top five" club should do wonders for his confidence.  Following years of speculation, he is finally in a place where he deserves to be.  If he can transfer that to the national team, and, in particular, to his teammates, then Paulo Bento may have something to look for in the later rounds of the tournament.

The statement is clear.  At 25 years old, Kim is the present and the future of the national team.  Without him, there is little chance of success moving forward.  

One thing is certain.

The man is fearless and ready to take on all challenges.  

Luciano Spalletti has the steal of this transfer window and Paulo Bento has an ace in his pocket.

A special thank you to Lee Han-shin for his contribution to this piece.

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