Jürgen Klinsmann could be unwitting agent for change in Korean football

<span>Jürgen Klinsmann was manager of <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:South Korea;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">South Korea</a> for only a year before they lost to Jordan in the Asian Cup semi-finals.</span><span>Photograph: Héctor Retamal/AFP/Getty Images</span>

Imagine if a day before a major semi-final for England, Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham were involved in a ding-dong that ended with the striker nursing dislocated fingers. And this was a story broken by a foreign newspaper few had heard of, then confirmed by the Football Association hours later. That may give some sense of what happened to South Korea with Tottenham’s Son Heung-min and Lee Kang-in of Paris Saint-Germain in February, the longest month in the country’s long football history.

There’s more and it all started with an Asian Cup semi-final defeat against Jordan on 6 February, which ended chances of lifting the continental trophy for the first time since 1960. That game, as seismic as it was partly because of Korea’s abject performance against an opponent ranked 64 places lower, has been overshadowed by what happened next.

Related: South Korea sack Jürgen Klinsmann as head coach over ‘leadership failure’

Immediately Jürgen Klinsmann said it had been a fantastic tournament, that he wasn’t going to resign as coach and that the focus should be on analysing what had happened. The Korea Football Association (KFA) did just that a week later, conducting an in-depth review, but the 1990 World Cup winner was back in California and attending the review on Zoom. On 15 February, even that remote connection was finally cut.

The main gripe was always the lack of time Klinsmann spent in Korea, with the now infamous stat of 67 days in his first six months in the job. Disappearing almost as soon as the tournament finished added to suspicions that although the smile was there, the heart for the job was not. The KFA called it “disrespectful”.

The organisation has long been controlled by Hyundai, a company that, even in a country known for a punishing work culture, traditionally prided itself on long hours bookended by early-morning breakfasts and late-night drinking. Past foreign coaches had always been based in Seoul; it was a requirement of the job. Demands on Korean managers had been higher still and their wives had, in the past, been known to complain to the KFA that the constant drinking with officials, journalists and sponsors that was expected was detrimental to their husbands’ health.

Nobody expected Klinsmann to burn the midnight oil in quite the same way but being easier to see on foreign television or stadiums than at K-League games meant there was little credit in the bank. The man himself said this was modern football. “Maybe it’s something new to people that are used to doing it differently,” Klinsmann said last year from Los Angeles.

“I don’t blame anybody when they say: ‘Where is he?’ I am a workaholic. I love to work like Koreans love to work. If I’m not maybe 24/7 in the country, I still work 24/7, calling people, observing, and watching videos about opponents.”

That Klinsmann had a freedom none of his predecessors had enjoyed would have been easier to accept if he was taking the team to the next level. The journey to the Asian Cup last four – with just one win in regulation time – was a chaotic ride with stars such as Lee and Son popping up at vital times to make a difference in the absence of any discernible gameplan or strategy.

Related: Son Heung-min injured finger in table tennis row with South Korea teammates

These two players, the captain and face of the team and the talented rising star, were at the centre of things off the pitch too. According to reports, a day before the Jordan game Lee and a group of younger players finished dinner early to play table-tennis and were told not to by Son and other senior players and then there was, said the Sun, a “Ping Pong Ding Dong”.

It can be easy to read too much into the junior/senior relationship dynamic but it is still a significant part of Korean society. As such it was not a surprise that public opinion swung sharply against the younger Lee, who first came to national attention at the age of six in a football reality TV show and joined Valencia four years later, and his reported disrespect to a much-loved older authority figure.

So negative was the reaction that major companies such as Korea Telecom started to reconsider commercial contracts with the 23-year-old. Lee has spent the majority of his life in Europe and perhaps was shocked at the fallout, despite his early apology, one that denied he had taken a swing at Son. In the end, it took a trip from Paris to London and a photo with Son, who then asked fans to forgive Lee, to perhaps turn the tide. Still, Lee, one of Asia’s most creative talents, could be forgiven for feeling a little nervous when he next steps through the arrivals gate at Incheon international airport.

It may be harsh to blame Klinsmann for the dustup, though it has been suggested that his laissez-faire leadership, which extended off the pitch, contributed. Many have noted the timing of the leak to the Sun. Klinsmann’s self-justification also got a boost: a day after the story broke, he was claiming that such infighting made his job at the Asian Cup harder.

Ultimately, though, there is more anger at the man who brought the German in. Chung Mong-gyu has been head of the KFA for more than a decade and his penchant for, and subsequent apparent indulgence of, Klinsmann has added to criticism that the Hyundai scion treats Korean football as his personal fiefdom. Klinsmann said last week that he suggested himself as Korea coach to Chung as a joke during the 2022 World Cup. Nobody was smiling when the axe fell. “We decided that Klinsmann was unlikely to improve as head coach, in terms of his abilities and work ethic,” said Chung.

It was a brutal end to a chaotic year. Klinsmann’s time has at least created demands for change. If carried through, he could end up being one of the most influential coaches in the country’s history.