The Korea Herald


Lee Kang-in's 'mutiny' frowned upon in country with strict pecking order

Soccer star faces wide criticism after scuffle with team captain Son Heung-min; Coach Klinsmann fired

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : Feb. 16, 2024 - 16:56

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Lee Kang-in (right) and Son Heung-min play in South Korea's semifinal game against Jordan in the Asian Cup at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Feb.6. (Yonhap) Lee Kang-in (right) and Son Heung-min play in South Korea's semifinal game against Jordan in the Asian Cup at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Feb.6. (Yonhap)

Soccer star Lee Kang-in is facing mounting criticism over his highly-publicized altercation with the men's national soccer team captain Son Heung-min, with some going as far as to call for him to be permanently banned from playing for the country ever again.

According to the Korea Football Association, petitions asking for a lifetime ban from the national team for Lee have been submitted, along with petitions for the resignation of KFA Chief Chung Mong-gyu and national team head coach Juergen Klinsmann. The KFA's National Team Committee on Wednesday decided to recommend Klinsmann's removal in light of the team's disappointing semifinal defeat at the Asian Cup 2023 earlier this month. After defying demands that he resign, the KFA informed Klinsmann of the decision and it was announced that he had been fired on Friday.

While the public's bashing of Chung and Klinsmann is based on the team's lackluster performance in the Asian Football Confederation tournament, the disdain for Lee -- the team's leading scorer and the sole Korean on the Asian Cup's all-tournament team -- is based on what he did off the field. His attitude toward Son during the continental tournament has been described by some as a "mutiny," with exact details of what happened behind closed doors remaining murky.

On Feb. 5, a day before South Korea's semifinal game against Jordan, the team's veterans and younger players became embroiled in a disagreement. Team captain Son Heung-min had called for a meeting after dinner, but the younger players decided to play table tennis. After a scuffle and an argument of an unspecified nature, Son ended up with a dislocated finger.

The KFA promptly confirmed reports of a physical altercation and Lee apologized for what he called an argument, saying he was deeply sorry for his actions. The Paris Saint-Germain midfielder, however, stressed that he did not take a swing at Son as had been suggested in some media reports.

Son, now back with Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League, has yet to comment on the matter.

Former players and the public have been critical of the 22-year-old Lee's lack of respect for Son, who is nine years his senior and a much more accomplished player. Former national team player Lee Chun-soo said via his YouTube channel on Wednesday that he was "frankly a little hurt" over the news of an argument between teammates.

"To be honest, I think this is something that should not have happened. South Korea is a country of manners and places great importance on 'sunbae-hubae' (senior-junior) relationships," he said, while acknowledging that the current team culture is different from when he played for South Korea in the 2000s.

South Korean culture places great importance on seniority, even for differences of only one year. A hubae, referring to someone of less experience, is required to be respectful toward a sunbae, who is expected in turn to guide and look after younger members of a company, school or sports team.

Lee Kang-in is on the field for South Korea's semifinal against Jordan in the Asian Cup at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Feb. 6. (Yonhap) Lee Kang-in is on the field for South Korea's semifinal against Jordan in the Asian Cup at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Feb. 6. (Yonhap)

When Guus Hiddink took over as head coach of the South Korean national team ahead of the 2002 World Cup, he set out to abolish strict hierarchy by having younger players use "banmal" -- an informal form of speech typically used with those younger or the same age as the speaker -- with veterans. Lee Chun-soo was one of those youngsters who spearheaded the change, which was one of the factors attributed to the improvement in player communication leading to the famed semifinal run in the world's premier soccer event.

Two decades later, the culture of seniority in South Korea is not quite as prominent as back then, but respecting one's elders is still a distinct characteristic of Korean society.

The same Lee said that Klinsmann was mainly to blame for the ill state of team chemistry that led to such a quarrel at a pivotal moment in Qatar. It was reported that the coach was present at the time of the scuffle but did not intervene, speaking to both involved players only after they had been broken up.

"A coach should tell players off, tell them what to do and what not to do. If he's just going to sit there smiling and not know what's going on, what's he doing as the coach?" the former player said.

It is still unclear exactly what Lee Kang-in did in his confrontation with Son. A disagreement with a teammate would not typically be considered an action warranting a suspension, but most sports clubs around the world would agree that physical confrontation poses a serious issue.

Virtually all sports teams across the country have their own pecking order, and challenging the authority of a captain or coach is inappropriate.

Altercations between a coach and a player are often subject to criticism, such as that between David Beckham and coach Alex Ferguson of Manchester United in 2002. A fistfight between players would conventionally lead to a suspension, as in the NBA where Rudy Gobert was suspended one game over punching teammate Kyle Anderson during a game in April last year.

If Lee’s supposed fistfight with Son proves to the true, it is likely that the rising player of the national squad will be subject to even greater criticism from the general public.