“It is very strange to me.”
So says Busan I’Park’s Coach Andy Egli a number of times as he relaxes overlooking Haeundae Beach, one of South Korea’s most popular tourist spots.
The well-dressed Swiss boss has been on the south coast since July 2006 and while he has settled into life in Korea’s second city with the minimum of fuss, there are still a number of aspects that make him shake his head, laugh or both.
Being a football man, most of these things are regarding his life as one of three foreign coaches in the Land of the Morning Calm. Egli, a former defender who made 77 appearances for Switzerland’s national team, is an animated when sat on a plush sofa as he is standing on the sidelines during a Busan game.
That’s the way it should be at the start of a new season, especially at the start of a first full campaign in a foreign land. The second half of last year saw a respectable if unspectacular performance from the team and it also gave the 48 year-old time to get to know his players and vice-versa.
“The players know me better now,” he says. “They know my philosophy and they know how I expect them to play and what I expect them to do.” Not all of them though, as the trim European admits. “18 players left – too many, too many. 14 came in – this is Korean style.”
Busan is the second most successful Togel Singapore club in Korean history and with four titles, is second to only Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma on the honors roll. However, this year marks the tenth year since the K-League trophy resided in this port city with a population of over four million.
Despite the size of the city, Busan is not one of the league’s big spenders and sits on the sidelines to watch the likes of Seongnam, Suwon and Ulsan splash the cash. Money was the main reason why star player of 2006 Popo left the club in the winter to join nearby Gyeongnam FC.
On mention of the Brazilians name and the fact that he scored for his new club earlier that day, Egli is immediately interested. “What kind of goal?” he asks quickly, “open play or free-kick? What was the score when he scored?”
Egli can be forgiven for his curiousity as Popo scored 13 goals last season, the second highest in the league, despite the fact that he is a midfielder but the goals came at a price.
“For Busan, Popo was an expensive player,” says the coach. “To extend his contract would have cost the club a lot of money. I knew the money that was needed to bring in the new Brazilian players and the money that was needed to keep Popo was, from my point of view, too much.
“Popo scored many goals but a lot of them were from free-kicks. Of course, that is a good quality, but he didn’t score many from open play.”
Players come and go in football and without the mercurial South American, Busan prepared for a new season and hopefully, a tilt at the title. The fixture list seemed kind. The first two games were at home and the visitors were the two teams that finished bottom of the 2006 standings.
It didn’t work out as expected. Jeju United won 1-0. That loss gave the visit of Gwangju Sangmu greater significance. Would the pressure be on with another home defeat?
“Definitely – yes, I can’t deny that. We do know at the moment what the result will be tomorrow but if we lose at home against a team that you should beat then of course there will be a certain pressure but that’s football and part of my job.”
As it turned out, Busan deservedly won 2-1 inside a cold stadium to move to the middle of the standings. From 2007, the teams that finish in the top six will qualify for the championship play-off series. Despite recent mediocrity, Busan have a chance of doing so. “We finished eighth last year,” recalls Egli, “and we have the ambition to be better so the sixth rank is not far.”
It will take hard work to get there, from the coach, the players and the coaching staff. Egli would like more discussions with his assistants but it is not easy.
“Korean coaches do not like to exchange their views, ideas or knowledge to develop the game. I ask them questions about analyzing games or why a certain coach did something but they will not say anything. It’s very interesting.”
Players can be uncomfortable too: “Sometimes after the game I gather the team to watch the video of the match. I tell them: ‘Now I am going to talk about football players, I am not going to talk about human beings. I am going to talk about number eight or number four and how we can make sure that we improve and don’t make the same mistakes.’ The players don’t like it and go like this,” Egli does a reasonable impression of Macauley Culkin’s famous Home Alone face.
“It seems not to be the Korean style and that is true with decision-making. This is the weakest point of Korean football.”
Despite a few failings, it is obvious that Egli is a natural optimist and he is positive about the long-term prospects for football in Korea.
“I think the future for Korean football is bright. These boys are strong, tall. They are quick and determined and they can play with both feet. They will continue to improve.
“The players in England now, they are changing as football players and personalities. When they come back to Korea with the national team, they bring those changes too. They are the future.”