A major crisis has hit the Korean national soccer team’s bid for a third straight Asian Games title. It’s the result of complacent and immature “player selection” by Hwang Sun-hong, 55, the head coach of the Asian Games team, and the Korean Football Association.
Hwang announced the final 22-man roster for the 2023 Hangzhou Asian Games at a soccer hall in Seoul’s Sinmun-ro on Aug. 14. Lee Sang-min (Seongnam FC), who came under fire for drunk driving two years ago, was included in the list, sparking controversy.
Lee was caught by police in May 2020 while driving under the influence of alcohol while playing for Chungnam Asan in the K League 2. He then played three more games while hiding the fact that he had been drinking and driving and reported it to the club about a month later, drawing further criticism. At the time, the KFA suspended him for 15 games and fined him 4 million won. After the suspension, Lee moved to Chungnam Asan and then to Seongnam FC this year, where he played 14 league games.
In the wake of criticism for selecting a player with a history of drunken driving to the national team, the Korean Football Association said in a statement on Monday that it has decided to remove Lee Sang-min from the final roster. This is just four days after the final roster was announced. Furthermore, the organization’s “sophistry” of “lack of information” in the selection process angered fans. The Korea Football Association said, “Lee Sang-min was disciplined by the KFA for drunk driving in the past and was subsequently selected for the age-group national team. Compared to players in the K League 1 or the A National Team, neither league news nor player-related information is relatively well known to the outside world, so we were unable to properly review the relevant regulations at the time of the first selection for the 2021 national team.”
Furthermore, according to Article 17 of the KFA’s ‘Regulations for the Operation of the National Football Team’, ‘Acts related to drunk driving, etc. are punishable by a fine of more than 5 million won. A person who has not served three years after the sentence has been finalized shall not be eligible for the national team. It’s reprehensible that a player was selected without knowing this.
Coach Hwang Sun-hong, who has full control over player selection and is the most responsible, also bowed his head. “The manager and coaching staff deeply apologize for being careless in the process of selecting players,” Hwang said in a statement, “and we will pay close attention to the details in the future.”
With Lee Sang-min out of the final roster of 22, the number is now 21. There’s more. Lee Kang-in, who has already been named to the final roster, is not guaranteed a spot as he still needs to coordinate with his club, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). In the worst case scenario, the team will have to go to the Asian Games with 20 players, having lost two of its 22 roster spots without Lee Kang-in and Lee Sang-min. The deadline for submitting rosters for the Asian Games is 15 days, and roster changes can only be made in case of medical issues such as injuries. With a tight competition schedule and the sweltering heat in Hangzhou, Hwang was faced with an unprecedented crisis for the national team.
According to Hwang, who spoke at the final roster press conference, Lee’s former club Mallorca had agreed to send him to the Asian Games, but PSG, who recently confirmed his move, could not agree to send him.
Coach Hwang Sun-hong was positive, saying, “I think it will be coordinated well,” but he is not sure if PSG will release Lee. The Asian Games and the Olympics are not organized by FIFA, so news organizations are not obligated to release players. If Lee goes to the Asian Games, PSG will have to play without him for about a month, from September 4, when the national team is expected to be called up, until early October, when the tournament concludes. The club spent a staggering 20 million euros ($28.4 billion) to acquire Lee, so it would be a risky move. But even before the tournament began, Hwang Sun-hong and the Korean Football Association’s careless handling of the tournament sank the team’s spirits. 안전놀이터