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World Cup stakes higher than ever

Failure to advance might be ‘the end of Korean football’
Aug 25,2017
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The Korean men’s football team trains at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi, on Tuesday. [YONHAP]
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For the Korean men’s football team, whose World Cup prospects are hanging by a thread, this would be the most favorable outcome in the next week: the team wins against Iran in front of a home crowd on Aug. 31, Uzbekistan loses the same day against China and Korea solidifies its berth in next year’s World Cup.

But realistically, beating Iran will be a difficult task, considering Korea has lost all three of its most recent matches against the Middle Eastern country. If Team Korea’s home game ends in a loss or tie, the determining factor of their World Cup fate will be the qualifying match against Uzbekistan on Sept. 5.

And if Korea loses that game, their only hope of advancing will be beating the third-ranked team in Group B in a playoff match.

Since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, Korea hasn’t had much problem getting to the World Cup. Fans never considered earning a spot as a big deal, though if Korea enters the tournament next year, it will become only the sixth country in the world (after football powerhouses like Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina and Spain) to make a ninth consecutive World Cup appearance.

But this year, for the first time in 30 years, the Korean team faces the real risk of missing the World Cup. Fans are already lamenting that if Korea fails to make the event, it will be the end of Korean football. The sport’s governing body, the Korea Football Association, will take the biggest hit, swallowing not just their pride but potential financial losses.

“In 2016, the Korea Football Association’s sponsorship contracts with Nike, KEB Hana Bank, KT and many others was worth 29.2 billion won [$25.9 million],” said Cho Jun-heon, a member of the association’s public relations team. “It slowly grew with the added premium of the Korean national football team’s advancement to the World Cup for an eighth consecutive time.”

There is little doubt that if Korea fails to make the World Cup the time, the Korea Football Association will lose its sponsors and have trouble securing new sponsorship deals.

The three broadcasting companies with rights to air World Cup matches will also face tremendous losses. JTBC, a cable affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, bought rights from the Asian Football Confederation to air Korea’s qualifying matches, but it will be SBS, KBS and MBC that will suffer if Korea doesn’t make the World Cup. They have the rights from FIFA to air the actual World Cup matches at a total cost of 107.7 billion won. During the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the three broadcasters earned more than 70 billion won from advertising, and the group match against Belgium recorded an unusually high 33.6 percent viewer rating.

“Not only is the World Cup an event for Korean football fans, it is an event for global football fans,” said Baek Jung-hyun, producer and director of sports at KBS. “Considering the advertising industry, if Korea fails to advance to the World Cup, they are expected to have a deficit of about 40 billion won. It could also negatively impact the sports broadcasting industry.”

By comparison, the average viewer rating of the UEFA Europa League in Korea is about 1 percent and the average viewer rating of the World Cup matches of other countries is about 6 to 12 percent.

The negative impact on the local K League may also be unavoidable. Pundits worry that once Korean football loses its popularity, there will be fewer fans visiting stadiums to watch K League matches. The most pessimistic believe there will be fewer Koreans interested in pursuing careers in football. The failure of the Korean team could eventually hit equipment companies, agencies, media and other football industries significantly.

The Korea Football Association seems to have adopted this apocalyptic mentality and done its best to make conditions favorable for the team before their match against Iran.

First, it postponed the kickoff to 9 p.m., the same time that China and Uzbekistan will begin their game, so that players will feel less pressure from the outcome. The Korea Football Association also hopes more fans might come to cheer for the national team.

The K League also postponed its regular schedule to allow players to join team training, which began on Monday at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi.

“All 12 K League Classic teams came to an agreement that Korean football is at risk,” said Hang Woong-soo, secretary general of the Korea Football Association.

BY PARK RIN [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]