Seoul kindergarten giving Taeguk hope
© AFP

Since veterans Lee Young-Pyo and Park Ji-Sung retired from international football following the AFC Asian Cup in January, Korea Republic have been undergoing a generation shift ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Coach Cho Kwang-Rae has vowed to transform the Taeguk Warriors into a younger side that plays quick-thinking and fast-paced football, so they will be able to challenge the sport’s best teams.

At the core of the long-term project is newly-appointed captain Park Chu-Young, who had a sensational season as a rookie at FC Seoul in 2005 before moving to Monaco three years later. But he is not the only one. Seoul have produced quite a few starlets down the years, with the likes of Lee Chung-Yong, Ki Sung-Yueng and Jung Jo-Gook plying their trade across Europe.

Coincidentally, the father figure who has overseen the meteoric rise of these youngsters is none other than Cho, who helped incept the youth academy at Anyang Cheetahs, a club that has been known as FC Seoul since 2004. After years of learning the advanced systems and coaching methods in Europe and South America, he returned to the K-League in 1999.

“The first thing that I did when I arrived at Anyang was to train the players with basic skills like passing,” Cho told FIFA.com. “Sometimes I even punished my players for recklessly shooting the ball, not passing it, because I wanted them to base their game on accurate passing. After a while, they built up confidence and played their own game under pressure. We then went on to win the K-League the following season.”

That was Anyang’s first title in nine years, and the club built on their success by investing in their academy in the early 2000s, when there was no concept of youth development whatsoever in South Korean football. After the phenomenal success of the national team at Korea/Japan 2002, raising young talent has become a priority for most sides in the country. Shortly afterwards, Lee Young-Pyo earned a move to Eindhoven giants PSV to become Anyang’s second export to Europe following Seo Jung-Won’s transfer to Strasbourg in 1998.

I don’t see the skills of young players when I pick them up. What I see is the intelligence, and then I try to tell whether they ‘think’ while they practice or play.
Cho Kwang-Rae

So, one could wonder, how does the man - who was also known as the ‘Principal of Cho Kwang-Rae Kindergarten’ while working for Gyeongnam FC a couple of years ago - identify the gems in the mud?

“I don’t see the skills of young players when I pick them up,” Cho explained. “What I see is the intelligence, and then I try to tell whether they ‘think’ while they practice or play. They could be clumsy or make mistakes, but they should think when they play. Otherwise, they cannot make progress beyond a certain limit, even if they practice a lot for a long time. Maybe I have a good eye for picking up the potential in that sense. Once I’ve chosen the talents then I begin to teach them the skills so they can actually think.”

One of the talents that did not go unnoticed by Cho was Lee Chung-Young, who signed for Seoul after dropping out of middle school in 2003. Lee would train with the reserves for a long time, along with his current Korea Republic team-mate Ki Sung-Yueng. “I easily made the hard decision, because I very much liked the system itself and they had fantastic facilities and good players as well,” Lee recalled in a recent interview with FIFA.com.

It took a while for Lee to make his senior debut and establish himself under Turkish coach Senol Gunes in 2007. However, he realised his dream of following in Park Chu-Young’s footsteps and playing in Europe in less than two years, with a transfer to Bolton Wanderers in the summer of 2009. The 22-year-old is still within touching distance of his best friend Ki, who joined Celtic last year.

“Seoul have always tried and tested what other clubs could never do,” said Lee. “Regardless of the results in a short period of time, they kept on investing in the youth and for the future. They had a belief that it would pay dividends in the long run.”