Sunderland midfielder has had to earn the respect of the nation after publically apologising for Facebook comments

World Cup 2014: Ki Sung-yueng treads the thin line between South Korea's domestic and foreign-based players

Public vision: Ki will be roared on at the World Cup – but only If he stays classy off the pitch Photo: PA
John Duerden

By John Duerden, World Cup Nation: South Korea

2:40PM GMT 26 Jan 2014


October 2013 and 66,000 fans are packed into Seoul World Cup Stadium wondering whether South Korea can pull off a shock result against Brazil in a glamour friendly. In the press box, local journalists are wondering how many of them are going to jeer Ki Sung-yueng.

Boos are almost unheard of in Korea where whatever the result, whatever the level, players go to fans at the end of the game, bow and are applauded in return (not bowing can spark anger however). Those watching English football at weekends sit bemused as teams are abused for not scoring in the first half. Yet here was Ki, now one of the form players of the English Premier League with Sunderland and a major factor in the team’s upturn in fortunes, suddenly cast into the role as public enemy number one, his World Cup future in doubt and all thanks to Facebook.

It all started, as many scandals do in Korea, with soju, the ubiquitous rice spirit favoured by a hard-drinking nation. In December 2011 the Korea FA plied experienced local coach Choi Kang-hee with bottles of the stuff and got his reluctant agreement to try and steer the team to an eighth successive World Cup. He did it, but only by the narrowest of goal difference margins, the final game defeat at home to Iran typical of the predictable and long-ball play unsuited to fast and technical players.

That performance reminded of his first competitive match in charge back in February 2012 in a crucial qualifier against Kuwait in Seoul. After a poor first half, Ki was introduced early in the second to help the Taeguk Warriors win 2-0. Nobody was impressed, including the then-Celtic midfielder, who went on to tell Facebook. “I was shocked that I was left off for the first half, but I’m sure now everyone knows that the team needs players from overseas leagues. Choi shouldn’t have touched us. I hope he does not show his arrogance anymore. Otherwise, he might get hurt.”

It was unwise but it was a private account, unseen by almost all. The problem was, once Choi stepped down immediately after qualification, as he had always said he would, he talked publicly of splits in the team between domestic and foreign players, describing how they sat separately at meal-times (this was an issue in Guus Hiddink’s time in 2002 but then the fault lines stemmed from seniority). One thing led to another and those 18-month old Facebook comments were leaked to a shocked nation.

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