This summer, Korean soccer had an unusual run. Seven Korean leaguers went straight to Europe. That’s the most ever for a Korean leaguer to go to Europe. In June, Seongnam FC’s Kim Ji-soo joined Brentford in the English Premier League. World Cup star Cho Kyu-sung also headed to Danish powerhouse Midtjylland. Gangwon FC’s Yang Hyun-joon and Busan I-Park’s Kwon Hyuk-gyu joined Scottish powerhouse Celtic FC. At the end of August, another European wave was born. Daejeon Hana Citizen’s Bae Joon-ho left for Stoke City in the English Championship (2nd Division) and FC Seoul’s Lee Han-beom left for Mittwillan. Hwang In-taek of Suwon Samseong joined Estoril Praia in Portugal on a one-year loan.
Except for Cho Kyu-sung, who was born in 1998, the other six players were all born after 2001. Kwon Hyuk-gyu was born in 2001, Yang Hyun-joon and Lee Han-beom were born in 2002, and Hwang In-taek and Bae Jun-ho were born in 2003. Kim Ji-soo, born in December 2004, is only 18 years old. Most of the players are in their late teens to early 20s. Besides Cho Kyu-sung, Yang Hyun-joon is the only other player to have been selected to the A team before going to Europe. You can see that this is a transfer focused on promise and potential.
Another peculiarity is the diversification of positions. In the past, flanking positions were highly valued for their work ethic and mobility, or for their exceptional speed and ability to use both feet. Now, however, Korean players are diversifying into positions where it was felt that it was difficult for them to be competitive on the European stage. Kim Ji-soo and Lee Han-beom are classic center backs, while Hwang In-taek is a versatile defender who can play in the center and on the flanks. Kwon Hyuk-gyu is a central midfielder, and Bae Jun-ho can play both attacking and flanking midfield. Yang Hyun-joon is a two-footed flanker who uses both feet for fast breaks, which has been a favorite in Europe in the past.
Why is this change happening? First of all, it’s about awareness in Europe. The way Asian players are viewed has changed. In recent years, South Korea and Japan have replaced South America and Africa as the go-to markets for players. This is because the top prospects in South America, represented by Brazil and Argentina, have become quite expensive. Young players in their mid-to-late teens are worth more than 30 billion won. The American Major League Soccer (MLS) has also emerged as a new competitor for players. It is geographically and culturally close to Africa and is a growing league. African prospects tend to have their career paths set early on. They develop at a young age in local academies that are often linked to big European clubs. The remaining clubs that lack the capital of the big clubs have found a niche in Asia, particularly Korea and Japan.
The assessment of Korean and Japanese players can be summarized as “players with low market value but well-educated in a quality system”. In the past, clubs didn’t trust this system and would take Asian players in their early teens and develop them in their own systems. The trio of Baek Seung-ho, Lee Seung-woo, and Jang Eun-hee grew up in FC Barcelona’s youth system, La Masia. However, FIFA put the brakes on the reckless signing of low-profile prospects. Barcelona was severely punished, and the trend of signing and developing underage players has slowed down.
South Korea and Japan have long recognized the importance of their development systems. They’ve been tweaking and improving them in competition with each other, and it’s what has brought them to a level that Europe can rely on. What’s more, both countries have recently proven that their players are capable of playing at the highest level in Europe for extended periods of time. South Korea is represented by Son Heung-min (Tottenham), Kim Min-jae (Bayern Munich), Lee Jae-sung (Mainz), Hwang Hee-chan (Wolverhampton), and Lee Kang-in (Paris Saint-Germain), while Japan is represented by Mitoma Kaoru (Brighton), Endo Wataru (Liverpool), Kamada Daichi (Lazio), Tomiyasu Takehiro (Arsenal), and Kubo Takefusa (Real Sociedad). Son Heung-min, in particular, is the Premier League’s top scorer. This season, he is the captain of the team and has shown leadership throughout. Kim Min-jae also made it to the big clubs after only two years in Europe. After joining Fenerbahçe and Napoli, he became the highest transfer fee ever for an Asian player (approximately $71 billion). This is a clear indication that Asian talent can be brought to Europe and polished to increase its value by 10 or 20 times.
Market and player-agent perceptions changed
This also changed the way European clubs scouted. In the past, short-term impacts such as A-match appearances or World Cup performances were a kind of guarantee check. Now, they look at a player’s development over a longer period of time. When we see a player with the style and strengths we need, we take a closer look. We have a dedicated Asia department, and we travel to Korea and Japan several times a year. Some clubs contract with agencies and even hire full-time scouts.
Celtic, Brentford, and Midtjylland are particularly interested in the Korean market. These are the teams that have made headlines for revolutionizing their scouting systems. The team leading the Asian strategy is Celtic. When Enrique Postecoglou, who is now the manager of Tottenham, was at Celtic, he was successful in recruiting Japanese players. He is an Australian national with a background in managing Japanese J-League clubs. This gives him an unbiased view of the competitiveness of Asian players. After his success with Japanese players, he turned his attention to South Korea. Celtic brought in Oh Hyun-gyu last winter and then Yang Hyun-joon and Kwon Hyuk-gyu this summer to form a Korean trio. Brentford and Midtjylland are sibling clubs with the same owner. Owner Mashu Bentham is a former professional gambler. Having run a sports analytics company, he believes in meticulous research, quantitative analysis, and data-driven reports. He ditched the traditional European youth system of developing local talent over a long period of time, seven to eight years. It wasn’t worth the time and money. Instead, they opted for a Major League Baseball-style organization that brings in prospects from around the world in their late teens and develops them intensively on the B team.
Another factor is the changing landscape of the European soccer market. As the industry has grown, labor costs have skyrocketed. Players in their late teens are now worth tens of billions of dollars. Naturally, big clubs with deep pockets are stronger. The potential of Asian players can make them an attractive option for smaller clubs. Teams that were once hesitant to spend more than 2 billion won to sign an Asian player are now willing to spend around 3 billion won to secure a youngster. The UK Department of Labor is catching on to this trend. In June, it relaxed the criteria for issuing work permits. This is an important reason why Kim Ji-soo and Bae Joon-ho, who had no A-match appearances, were able to go to England.
The perception of domestic players has also changed. Teenage players who grew up watching the likes of Park Ji-sung and Son Heung-min prepare systematically with a firm goal and ambition to reach Europe. Many of them have been practicing professional physical training since they were teenagers. Many of them have already reached the professional level in terms of self-care. They are also actively working on the issue of military service, which is the biggest barrier to reaching Europe. Oh Hyun-gyu and Kwon Hyuk-gyu enlisted in the Korean Armed Forces Athletic Corps (Commerce) before they turned 20. While performing their military service, they also built up their skills through regular appearances. In the past, it was mainly to fulfill the age limit for enlistment (27 years old when applying)온라인바카라 or to use the Asian Games and Olympics as a way out.
The inclusion of buyout clauses, which are more common in Europe, is also aimed at European expansion. When teenage prospects join a K League club, if a team offers a certain amount of money, they are allowed to transfer and naturally go to Europe. In fact, this summer, Kim Ji-soo and Lee Han-beom used this system to go to Europe. The perception of agents, who are the link between transfers, has also changed. In the past, many agents preferred to send players to China or the Middle East, where transfer fees are two to three times higher than in Europe. However, the new generation of younger agents emphasize co-growth. This is because in three to four years, the player’s value will be higher, and the fee will be much higher if he goes to a big club. Kim Min-jae’s agent’s fee for his move to Bayern Munich alone is worth 21 billion won. There is a growing consensus among players and agents to focus on future value rather than immediate money. The number of players challenging for Europe is expected to continue to increase.