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Troubles for national team continue amid reports of fights, possible sacking of coach

Feb. 14, 2024 - 19:06 By Yoon Min-sik
Son Heung-min (left) and Lee Kang-in of South Korea are seen in this photo taken during the national team's semifinal match against Jordan in the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar last Tuesday at the Ahamd bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan. (Yonhap)

Woes for South Korean men's national soccer team continued as its members were found to have gotten into a physical fight with each other before the big match, and the country's soccer governing body reportedly contemplating whether to request resignation of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

The Korea Football Association confirmed Wednesday earlier reports by UK media that the team captain Son Heung-min got into an altercation with midfielder Lee Kang-in ahead of the team's semifinals match against Jordan in the Asian Cup 2023, resulting in Son dislocating his finger. The row occurred as the team captain tried to stop Lee and younger members of the team from going out to play ping-pong before the crucial match.

The Klinsmann talked things over with both players after the incident, but Son and other veterans reportedly asked the coach to remove Lee from the starting lineup. The coach did not agree and started Lee in the match, which ended in a disappointing 2-0 loss and another lost opportunity for the country to win an Asian Cup.

The news came on the coattails of local media outlets reporting that the KFA members have recommended its chief to request the beleaguered coach's resignation on Tuesday.

In a first KFA meeting convened since South Korea's disappointing semifinal exit from the Asian Cup 2023, its executives have agreed that Klinsmann should be removed from his post, according to a report by local broadcaster YTN. The broadcaster quoted Lee Seok-jae, vice president of the country's highest soccer authority.

Lee reportedly relayed the results of the closed-door meeting to KFA President Chung Mong-gyu, who for the first time this year, did not attend an executive meeting. Chung told him that there needs to be "a justification" for Klinsmann's removal, according to reports.

Another media outlet reported that the KFA already has a plan B for when and if Klinsmann resigns.

Jurgen Klinsmann (Yonhap)

The South Korean public has been demanding that the KFA fire Klinsmann after the team's subpar performance during Asia's top continental tournament in Qatar. The national team struggled throughout the tournament against lower-ranked teams in the FIFA, sparking criticism over the coach's lack of tactics and his supposed absence of commitment.

A civic group filed a complaint to the police against KFA chief Chung for his alleged unilateral appointment of the national team head coach, which supposedly constitutes a crime of interference with the business of the KFA.

Even some politicians joined in by requesting the KFA to address the fans' complaints, including Daegu Mayor Hong Joon-pyo, who said Chung should terminate the contract with Klinsmann.

Klinsmann, considered among Germany's best offensive players in his playing days, is among the most high-profile head coaches South Korea has ever had. He was among the highest paid coaches in the Asian Cup, which makes his termination strenuous for the KFA from financial standpoint.

The budget for the South Korean soccer federation in 2023 was its all-time high of 158.1 billion won ($118.2 million). If the KFA fires Klinsmann, the buyout fee for the coach is presumed to be as high as somewhere in the 7-billion-won range. The coach's salary is reported to be around $2 million, and is under contract for another two years and five months.