I smell the sea as I exit the long highway. The waterfront can be seen through the gaps between the passing buildings. The sun is high and hot. The whistle blows long. A loud voice announces the start of training. Directed by Ahn Ik-soo.
After training in the late afternoon, the FC Seoul team had dinner. According to the manager of the team, coach Ahn Ik-soo and the coaching staff hold meetings until late at night after dinner every day. It is about reviewing training and planning training for the next day. Since the interview was held after dinner, I thought it would be an hour at most. The venue was decided at the rooftop bar of the athletes’ hotel.
Director Ahn Ik-soo says, “Hey~ I’m here for the first time.” In a hotel famous for its auxiliary facilities, he never leaves the lobby, restaurant, or meeting room. At 8 p.m., coach Ahn Ik-soo, club staff, and three reporters sat down and started the interview. The seat lasted exactly four hours. The story repeated expansion and contraction from FC Seoul to the K-League and Korean soccer. The mango juice on the table was already separated from the water and juice, so I couldn’t taste it anymore.
- A person who always learns
Director Ahn Ik-soo is an unusual case. He started playing football when he was in high school, won the K-League championship, and made it to the final entry for the FIFA World Cup. He wanted to know more about soccer, so he got a Ph.D., and he went around England, Germany, and Japan because he wanted to see more about soccer. It means that he has both talent and willingness to learn. There is no way someone like this could have skipped the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
“I watched all the games that were broadcast until 4:00 in the morning. (Showing memo on smartphone) After the World Cup, I summarized 17 points. The games that we can use are currently being analyzed by the analysis team as learning materials. I plan to share that data with the players in Kagoshima, Japan, saying, ‘This is how we play soccer’.”
Who was the most impressive team among the World Cup participating countries? Which team is coach Ahn Ik-soo aiming for? To the question of wanting an exact name, the answer came back: “It is different for each part.” “Argentina seems technical, but the defense is quite tough. He was organized while knowing how to play defense that harasses the opposing striker. Croatia’s three midfielders were similar to us in changing positions. Spain uses a 4-1-4-1 like us, with the midfielders widening the attack. France builds up by creating a back 3 with the wingbacks staying behind. There are also lessons to be learned from Morocco. We continue to press forward, but Morocco presses in a rhythm. Slowing down his opponent’s attack tempo, inducing them into a self-defense pattern. We want to update those parts.”
- FC Seoul’s theory of responsibility The
story of the World Cup inevitably flows through comparison. The superiority and inferiority are divided on the top of the Korean and world-class, K-League and European leagues. Can the soccer we saw in the World Cup be practiced in FC Seoul or the K-League? When asked this question, director Ahn Ik-soo threw out the word ‘root’. Then he lamented the fact that his roots were shaking at FC Seoul, which he returned to after 10 years. It’s a story about the foundation.
“Thanks to the sound roots of France, Croatia, Argentina, and Brazil, even in situations where decisions are made within 5 or 6 World Cup games, they are bearing fruit while playing soccer as they have been doing so far. This is possible because the roots are strong. Currently, Seoul is in a situation where its roots are weak. For example, there is no data to be used as a criterion for evaluating players’ condition. There is no scout curriculum and it does not go back systematically. It’s just a way to look at him and say, “He’s fine.” In 2010, the youth clinic had about 5,500 people. At that time, there were the most spectators. Now the average spectator has dropped to the 9,000 level. Without fans, there are problems with sponsors, and the preparation of the players becomes insufficient. It spends the same budget, but it is less effective.”
“In 2010, FC Seoul had an enterprising passion. Now, how to say, only bad words come to mind. Experience is a great asset. Experience is a resource from which new parts are conceived. However, if the experience is wrong, it becomes tolerance. I once said that when I came to the clubhouse, only trees grew. I think FC Seoul is the club that represents Korean football. You have to play soccer that gives a social message. A virtuous cycle structure that looks forward to 5 or 10 years should be created. Grades are important right now, but we need more of that culture and environment.”
Coach Ahn Ik-soo also knows the importance of a score that fans can understand. Seoul is too big and has a lot of fans to give up the rankings just because after the first season was over, President Heo Tae-soo said, “Don’t think about winning and play customer-oriented soccer.” He is also well aware of the reality that grades come out when culture is established, and that there is a justification for forming a culture only when grades are guaranteed. Therefore, FC Seoul’s responsibilities, roles, and social messages are emphasized over and over again.
“Chairmen Heo Chang-soo and Heo Tae-soo always emphasize customer-centeredness. Customers are fans who visit the stadium. For a lot of fans to come, first of all, performance is important. Fans are already at eye level with the Premier League. You have to make an effort to follow it. Players should be afraid of their fans. I have talked about salaries to players in the past. For example, where does the annual salary of 300 million won come from? The monthly royalty per GS Shop store is about 2 million won. When 150 shops pay full royalties, that money becomes a player’s annual salary. He talked about why he had to train hard and why he had to do his best in Sangam. After finishing the story, I laughed when I heard from the back, ‘Isn’t the director giving you money?’
“I hope FC Seoul is a little different. FC Seoul should become a leading club. Something has to be given. Rather than changing the coach in a short period of time, we need to create a culture where a leader who has been trained since the Osan youth team can take on the role of a professional team coach. Look at Germany’s Jurgen Klopp and Julian Nagelsmann. It gives me a dream that if I try hard, I can go up there too. In Korea, you can never become a professional coach unless you become a pro. If there is a leader who can grow up in youth and complete FC Seoul’s football, he has to coach a professional team. Why? Because it’s FC Seoul. Because it is a club that has to lead Korean football.”
It was in the same context that I paid my respects at the National Cemetery before leaving for winter training. It’s about knowing what the players are playing for. “I went to the National Cemetery before coming here. At first, the reaction was why I had to go there. After I went and listened to the explanation, the atmosphere became really solemn. There are many dead and missing people whose names are unknown. Indeed, we must clearly know why we live with the FC Seoul emblem. The reason we sacrifice and devote ourselves is ‘for FC Seoul’ and ‘for the fans’.”
- ‘Iksu Ball’ is a Space
Even though it went through ups and downs in the 2022 season, coach Ahn Ik-soo at FC Seoul showed a positive playstyle enough to earn the nickname ‘Iksu Ball’. Yoon Jong-gyu and Lee Tae-seok are fullbacks (or wingbacks), but move to the center area in build-up situations. Ki Sung-yueng’s style of making a back 3 form with a center back also attracted attention. In a private meeting last year, Ki Sung-yong once said, “Contrary to rumors, coach Ahn Ik-soo is so tactically knowledgeable that I was honestly surprised.” This is the official recognition of the midfielder who experienced Swansea City football, which caused a sensation in the Premier League with a positive play style.
“Today’s training was also tactical movement practice. Always order to understand the concept of space. The principle is that defense covers space and offense uses space. The space created by one player’s movement must be used by a teammate. If space is needed for movement trapping, it must be created by a colleague moving it. Since I took over, I couldn’t tell how much our players understood the concept of space, but having them play with newly recruited players definitely made a difference.”
“Situational judgment is based on four factors. The ball, the opponent, the mate, and the space. The players who did this best were Xavi and Iniesta. There is a video of Chabi training with a camera for 90 minutes. He looks around tens of thousands of times. No matter how fast the players are, they don’t have the ingenuity to overcome the chabi. This is because they have good situational awareness. Early education is important in this area.”
Coach Ahn Ik-soo diligently explained positional play while showing several pictures showing complex tactical movements on an iPad. After listening to the explanation carefully, the movements learned by the players at the training ground in the afternoon were visualized as PDF files. It was only then that I understood the purpose of the multi-point rondo and shooting training, which seemed complicated. Following this, manager Ahn Ik-soo introduced the characteristics of each position in Manchester City, Liverpool, and France. Then he laughs, saying, “I think about how we can use these things.” Checking European soccer games, getting ideas, and making choices considering realistic constraints work 24/7 in coach Ahn Ik-soo. And then it comes back to FC Seoul’s soccer story. 안전놀이터
“Football is winning with just one goal. That I can do really well. Honestly, if I were the coach of Busan even now, I would have done that. However, FC Seoul shouldn’t play football like that. Fans should have something to see. We need to make the fans look forward to the next game as they come out of Sangam. I want to play the style that world-class teams are aiming for because it is not allowed to play soccer down. Manchester City and Liverpool keep going up even with a 2-0 lead. FC Seoul should do the same. You have to play that kind of soccer, and it has to spread out and resonate socially. If we can create a synergy that develops together, I want to challenge while I am here.”
4 hours went by. The strategy to finish the interview quickly and drink beer while looking at the night sea has failed. Unlike other summer resorts, Hua Hin is an exclusive resort for the Thai royal family, so all pubs close at 11 p.m. After midnight, all the reporters and PR staff could do was go back to their lodgings and go to their respective rooms.
The next morning, coach Ahn Ik-soo boosted the mood of the team with a jokgu menu that was “unimaginable before.” The winter training plan that matches the conditioning goal before the opening day is also a different part from the past. The day before, he also talked about his own changes to reach the MZ generation. After a strong handshake and greeting, the reporter boarded a taxi back to Bangkok. In the 2023 season, coach Ahn Ik-soo plans to continue the struggle (!) to make FC Seoul like FC Seoul both inside and outside the stadium.