‘Hapless striker’ Kim Eun-joong to ‘open up’ as coach

[2023 U-20 World Cup] First full-time head coach leads South Korea to world quarterfinals

South Korea’s young Taegeuk warriors were denied a place in the final by an Italian wall.

Kim Eun-joong’s South Korea U-20 soccer team fell 1-2 to Italy in the semifinals of the U-20 World Cup at the Estadio Unico Diego Armando Maradona in La Plata, Argentina, on Monday (Sept. 9). South Korea, who were denied a place in the final by Simone Papundi’s 41st-minute goal, will play Israel, the tournament’s other “surprise team,” for third place at 2:30 a.m. ET on June 12 at the same venue.

Although they were denied back-to-back finals appearances in 2019, the U-20 team’s achievements at the tournament deserve nothing but praise. The team overcame the criticism of being a ‘stuck generation’ to stand among the world’s top four, beating powerhouses such as France and Nigeria. Kim Eun-joong, who has been in charge of the team since January 2022, made a very successful start to his coaching career after a somewhat unfortunate and disappointing playing career.

A star in the K League, but a disappointing national team career

After the 1998 World Cup in France, there was an unprecedented “renaissance” in the Korean Football League (K-League), as young stars such as the Daewoo Royals’ Terius, who combined actorly good looks with flashy skills, the Pohang Steelers’ 메이저놀이터 Lee Dong-guk, a powerful shooter, and Suwon Samsung’s Go Jong-soo, a soccer prodigy. In between, there was Kim “Sharp” Eun-joong, the coach of the upstart Daejeon Citizens.

Kim Eun-joong, who has been Daejeon’s main striker since 1998, didn’t have a stellar record due to the team’s weaknesses, but he led Daejeon to an FA Cup victory in 2001 with Lee Kwan-woo (Cheongju University). However, as a poor civic club, Daejeon could not afford to keep Kim Eun-joong, and in 2003 the club sent him on loan to Vegalta Sendai of the Japanese J-League. Kim Eun-joong was transferred to FC Seoul shortly after the 2003 season by agreement between the clubs.

After a steady run of eight goals and two assists in 2004 and seven goals and seven assists in 2005, Kim played a season with Changsha Jinde in the Chinese League in 2009 before joining Jeju United FC in 2010. Kim’s career peaked in 2010 when he scored 13 goals and 10 assists to lead Jeju to the K-League runner-up spot and was named the K-League Season MVP, as well as one of the Best 11 forwards in the league, all at the age of over 30.

In 2012, Kim moved to Gangwon FC, where he played for a year and a half before being loaned out to Pohang in 2013, winning the league title and FA Cup in the twilight of his career in his mid-30s. In 2014, Kim returned to Daejeon, where he first started his professional career, and spent a season as a player-coach, helping Daejeon win promotion to the first division before announcing his retirement. Kim’s number 18 became his permanent number for 18 years in Daejeon.

Despite his stellar career in the K League, Kim never made a mark on the national team. In fact, Kim was often selected for the national team under Umberto Cuellar, but after the arrival of Joe Bonfreire, he was less and less selected in favor of players like Lee Dong-hwan, Lee Dong-guk, and Cho Jae-jin. In the end, Kim ended his national team career on a low note, scoring five goals in 15 A matches.

First World Cup quarterfinal as a coach

After retiring from active duty at the end of the 2014 season, Kim began his coaching career with AFC Thunbij in the Belgian second division. In the 2016-2017 season, he took over as acting head coach late in the season when the head coach was sacked, and he managed to stabilize the team and prevent AFC Thunbiz from being relegated to the third division. Kim was named coach of the U-23 national team in 2017 and assisted Kim Hak-bum at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta-Palembang, where he helped South Korea win its second consecutive title.

Kim became the head coach when Lee Min-sung, the head coach of the Olympic team, was named head coach of Daejeon. Kim also coached the players at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. In December 2021, Kim was named head coach of the U-20 team, his first full-time head coaching role. Kim’s U-20 team scored three consecutive goals after conceding an early goal to China in the quarterfinals of the U-20 Asian Cup in Uzbekistan in March to win 3-1 and qualify for the knockout round.

In fact, the tournament did not have a big star like Lee Kang-in (RCD Mallorca) at the 2019 tournament, and it was the first U-20 World Cup in four years, so the interest of soccer fans was relatively low. However, despite the lack of attention and underdog status, Kim Eun-joong’s team surprised soccer fans by beating France in their first group game. With one win and two draws in the group stage, the team went on to defeat Ecuador in the round of 16 and Nigeria in the quarterfinals, reaching the quarterfinals of two consecutive tournaments.

In fact, Kim transformed players who were largely unnoticed before the tournament into rising stars. Captain Lee Seung-won (Gangwon), who scored two goals and provided four assists, became the “Lee Kang-in of 2023,” while Choi Seok-hyun (Dankook University), who scored a set-piece header in two consecutive games, became a “goal-scoring defender. Lee Young-joon, a 192-centimeter striker who plays for Gimcheon Sangsung FC and is serving in the military, and goalkeeper Kim Jun-hong are also being eyed as promising prospects for the future.

Hong Myung-bo (Ulsan Hyundai), who led South Korea to the quarterfinals of the 2009 U-20 World Cup, followed up with a bronze medal at the London Olympics and led the team to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. There’s also the case of Shin Tae-yong (Indonesia), who went from the Olympic team to the U-20 national team to the World Cup. This is why we are looking forward to the next step of Kim Eun-joong, a ‘young leader’ who achieved a remarkable result of reaching the top four in the world at the U-20 World Cup, which was the beginning of his coaching career.