Coach comments land Ki Sung-yeung in hot water in South Korea

Ki, one of Asia's most famous sportsmen, has had a long, nervous wait to see whether his interactions on Facebook would cost him a place with the South Korean national team.

Updated: July 10, 2013 10:43 IST
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Seoul, South Korea: English Premier League star Ki Sung-yeung has just discovered what happens when a confident young footballer, social media and a Confucian-influenced culture collide.

Ki, one of Asia's most famous sportsmen, has had a long, nervous wait to see whether his interactions on Facebook would cost him a place with the South Korean national team.

The 2009 Young Asian Footballer of the Year is only 24 but has played more than 50 times for South Korea, won the Scottish title with Celtic, the English League Cup with current club Swansea and recently married one of South Korea's leading television personalities. Yet the cultured midfielder has never been so unpopular.

On July 4, a columnist with one of South Korea's big portals revealed postings from Ki's private Facebook account. The comments were made in February 2012 after South Korea defeated Kuwait 2-0 in a vital 2014 World Cup qualifier that also marked the first game in charge for coach Choi Kang-hee.

Ki entered the game in the second half with the score at 0-0.

"I was so shocked and let down because I didn't get to play for the first half," Ki wrote, "but I bet everyone now knows that the team needs players from overseas. He (Choi) shouldn't have touched us, and I hope he doesn't show his proud face again. Watch out."

Before that match, Ki had sarcastically thanked Choi for selecting him "even though I play for a mere second-tier league in Europe," in response to the coach's comments that Celtic apart, the Scottish league was no better than Korea's third division. Choi, 54, stepped down last month after South Korea successfully qualified for the 2014 World Cup despite a relatively disappointing campaign in Asia.

The comments may have been 18 months old but quickly created a media storm which, despite Choi's lackluster record in charge, was largely critical of Ki. The Taeguk Warriors are famed for their team spirit and team work but faith in the players had been already knocked by comments from Choi on July 3 which referred to divisions between overseas and domestic-based players.

It is an unusual situation, as sports psychologist Son Woe-tae explained.

"In South Korea, young players are not free to express their opinions when it is considered to be against an older person," Son, who has worked with some of the country's top players, told The Associated Press. "It is prohibited. A coach has absolute power. Ki studied overseas as a youngster and plays overseas and expresses his emotions very freely compared with most Korean players.

"There is a definite generation gap between people like Choi Kang-hee and Ki Sung-yeung. A new generation of coaches is coming through and they are younger. They perhaps are a little different and it is they who must solve these kinds of problems in the future."

Ki spent some of his childhood in Australia, signed for Scottish giants Celtic in December 2009 and then moved to the English Premier League in 2012. He has not shied away from controversy. In January 2011, he landed in hot water after a goal celebration against Japan was described as racist. Earlier this year, ambiguous comments he left on Twitter about the value of good leadership were seen by many as criticisms of Choi, a charge that the player denies.

After this latest controversy, Ki's management company quickly claimed that the Facebook account was fake and, according to the columnist who originally revealed the comments, threatened legal action. But Ki, now back in pre-season training with Swansea, issued a public apology.

"I had no intention of making this Facebook page public," said Ki, who has now deleted his social media accounts. "I used the page with my friends until a year ago. Because those comments should not have been made by a member of the national team, I deeply apologize. I will do my best to dispel all the worries I have caused to the fans and fellow footballers and officials by concentrating on football."

There were suggestions that he may not get the chance to do so for a while, with some critics speculating he deserved a a year-long ban from the national team. On Wednesday, however, KFA vice-president Huh Jung-moo told reporters that the situation was unprecedented and that Ki would receive a severe warning but no disciplinary action. The association is to investigate how to implement rules to deal with similar situations in future.

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