After famously captaining Korea Republic to the semi-finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ on home soil, the most enduring image of Hong Myung-Bo is that a beaming smile after converting the decisive penalty in the shoot-out against Spain. The now 42-year-old enjoyed what he recalls as “the fantastic moments”, on the back of an illustrious career at Pohang Steelers, before trying his luck in Japan and the United States.
Hong is currently in charge of Korea Republic’s U-23 national team, having guided the U-20 side to the quarter-finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup two years ago. FIFA.com caught up with Hong at the National Football Centre to listen to his thoughts on discrimination and just some of his many experiences during a lifetime’s involvement in football.
FIFA.com: How would you define discrimination?
Hong Myung-Bo: To think of something like discrimination itself is discrimination in football. I mean, for instance, players may have different nationalities, skin colours or faces, but they have something in common. They only try their best to achieve the goal of winning games, so in that sense, there’s no room for discrimination in football.
Have you ever experienced or witnessed any kind of discrimination?
Actually I don’t think that I’ve seen substantial examples of discrimination, at least on the pitch. Sometimes you see communication failure or language barrier between players, but you don’t need words to play football in the first place. A team of eleven players are solely focused on the ball to get good results, and I haven’t experienced any sort of discrimination bar from some difficulties of communication.
So you never suffered from discrimination during your entire playing career?
Well, I’d be exaggerating if I said I was discriminated while I was playing in Japan. You should consider the complicated relationship between the two countries, and there were not so many Korean players in the J.League at that time. In my first games there, I felt like my team-mates were not passing the ball to me and I couldn’t do anything but to just wander around the pitch until the final whistle. At first I got very angry and wondered why, but after a while those things didn’t happen to me anymore. I’d say that was just difficulties, not serious enough to be called discrimination.
Compared with your generation, the current crop of Korean players has found it difficult to adapt to the Japanese game. What do you think is the difference?
The situations were different. We’d already built our careers in the K-League and had confidence as Korea Republic internationals, whereas the players now try to begin their careers on foreign soil at earlier ages. They need to get along with their team-mates and it’s not easy to get over the difficulties as foreigners. We were proud of ourselves being the representatives of Korean football and also had rich experience overseas, so we had better chances of success.
What would be the keys to success then?
First of all, you have to understand the local culture. And then, you should shake off the old habit from Korean tradition where they’re supposed to respect and obey the coach unconditionally. Sometimes you need to express your thoughts and opinions properly if you don’t want to be neglected. Once you’re there you’ve got to learn the language first, so you know what you hear is an insult or a piece of advice!
What were your experiences like in the MLS late in your career?
When I was playing for LA Galaxy, I was a bit too old and there were many young lads from different countries and backgrounds in the team. But I’ve never felt something weird like racism within the group or during the games, because they respected me a lot and I worked hard for the team in return.
What can FIFA and the football family do to fight against the discrimination?
I think the best way is to punish the clubs in question. Such things usually happen among the supporters inside the stadium, so the clubs are responsible for the education of the fans and the prevention of racism in the stadium. That would be the first step of dealing with the matter systematically.
You have participated in four FIFA World Cups while playing more than 100 games for your country, but can you say they are all fond memories?
Frankly speaking, I’ve heard foul languages from the opponents during the games and I did likewise. [Laughs] But after the match we always apologised to each other for the insults. As far as I remember there were no such incidents at the world finals, but during the Asian qualifiers we sometimes got very emotional against strong opponents like Saudi Arabia.