The smile belied Jurgen Klinsmann’s obvious discomfort.
Fronting up at Incheon Airport in Seoul, South Korea’s beleaguered head coach was facing an angry public (hundreds had turned up to “welcome” the team home from the Asian Cup in Qatar) and even angrier journalists.
“Lot of people!” he rather nervously exclaimed as he took to the microphone in a makeshift press conference area set up in the arrivals section of the airport.
The return of Klinsmann and the squad — minus their European-based players including Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur and Lee Kang-in of Paris Saint-Germain, who had flown directly back to their clubs — was huge news in South Korea. One of the country’s main news outlets streamed live coverage at the airport for more than an hour before they appeared, its camera fixed on the customs doors Klinsmann and his team would eventually walk through.
In theory, it is the kind of attention and scenario you might expect for a glorious homecoming, with manager Klinsmann and captain Son bringing home a trophy South Korea have been trying to win for over half a century to parade in front of their adoring public.
But no, this was more akin to a 7am walk of shame, still wearing the same clothes from the night before and reeking of regret.
The public wanted answers and the press conference began appropriately: “Do you plan on resigning?”
“Nice question!” Klinsmann laughed.
How did it come to this?
South Korea were one of the favourites for the tournament, but instead it ended in disaster with a semi-finals exit, and the fallout has been monumental back home.
First, some context.
The anti-Klinsmann sentiment had been brewing among an expectant South Korean public for some time — way before the Asian Cup began midway through last month.
Poor results at the start of his reign, which began late last February, such as a 1-0 defeat to Peru and a 1-1 draw against El Salvador, both at home, got things off to a poor start.
The former Germany striker’s tactics were said to lack coherence and have an overreliance on stars such as Son, Lee and Hwang Hee-chan. And there was the fact he, unlike predecessors such as Paolo Bento (who took the team to the last 16 of the 2022 World Cup, in which they lost to Brazil), had chosen not to come to live in South Korea, electing to stay at home in the U.S.
That did not go down well in a fiercely proud nation which expects 100 per cent commitment to the role.
He also caused controversy by asking Wales captain Aaron Ramsey for his shirt after a friendly in Cardiff in September. Klinsmann said it was for his son, then LA Galaxy goalkeeper Jonathan. However, with the game extending a run of five winless matches since he was appointed, the request drew an angry reaction from fans who felt he was not taking the 0-0 result seriously.
Klinsmann was struggling to win favour with a demanding public.
He asked to be judged on the Asian Cup which, well, he might regret now.
Slip-ups in the group stage (2-2 against Jordan and 3-3 against Malaysia — the latter ranked 130th in the world by FIFA, 107 places below South Korea) stoked negativity further, while last-gasp escapes against Saudi Arabia (an equaliser in the ninth minute of stoppage time, then a win on penalties) in the last 16 and Australia (another added-time leveller, followed by an extra-time winner by Son) in the quarter-finals amid underwhelming performances did little to give the impression South Korea were about to end their long wait for an Asian Cup, which they last won in 1960.
Still, this was tournament football and they were scraping through with defiance and resilience. Zombie football, they called it; South Korea kept coming back from the dead.
Then came Klinsmann’s nightmare: a horrific defeat to Jordan in the semi-finals, an utterly deserved 2-0 loss, with South Korea failing to muster a solitary shot on target in the 90 minutes.
Jordan, who are ranked 87th by FIFA and had never before reached the last four of a tournament, were everything South Korea were not; they fully committed to an obvious tactical plan of high pressing and high aggression, they won second balls, they fought, they were tenacious and passionate. South Korea were limp, anaemic and lifeless. They chucked long balls at central striker Son’s head, they played basic passes out of play, they made awful defensive errors.
Klinsmann ruefully smiled at full-time (something he had already been lambasted for after his team conceded a stoppage-time equaliser to Malaysia). He also sought out Jordan’s victorious coach Hussein Ammouta on the pitch to congratulate him, again earning criticism back home from a public which presumably wanted him to break down in tears instead.
“If you say I shouldn’t smile (or) give somebody a smile that deserves a compliment in that moment, maybe we have different approaches,” Klinsmann replied, when asked for the umpteenth time about why he was smiling. Smile-gate.
He was smiling again back in Seoul during that post-tournament debrief/grilling and, while he put a brave face on his team’s failures, both literally and figuratively, talking of the positives to take from the tournament, he also made a damning concession.
“(Jordan) have that hunger that maybe in the last game we didn’t have anymore, as much as they had,” he admitted. It is something he had also said in the immediate aftermath of that defeat (“they wanted it more”).
Despite essentially admitting he failed to sufficiently motivate his team — and in the face of relentless, incessant calls for him to resign or be sacked — the embattled Klinsmann insists he will carry on. He wants to take this team to the 2026 World Cup in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. He will not have to travel as far to get there.
Talking of the USA, there are some notable similarities from Klinsmann’s previous international job, which ended in November 2016 with the USMNT bottom of their World Cup qualification group after a 4-0 defeat in Costa Rica (results improved under replacement Bruce Arena but the Americans ultimately failed to reach a World Cup for the first time since 1986).
Klinsmann had led the team to the round of 16 at the previous World Cup in Brazil but he was fired amid talk of an egotistical manager whose tactics were little better than his man-management, with players played out of position, legend Landon Donovan controversially dropped from that 2014 World Cup squad and a tendency to deflect blame. He had introduced motivational speakers and yoga classes, as well as a range of different tactical ideas which were often quickly discarded.
Kyle Martino, a former USMNT player then with NBC Sports, had watched the team train after hearing complaints from players and later gave his damning verdict.
“I saw it firsthand, the training sessions were incongruous,” Martino said. “They were muddled, they didn’t make sense and they didn’t prepare the team for the weekend. The players didn’t know what positions they were playing until the day of the game. I mean, it was a mess.”
It echoed what Bayern Munich stalwart Philipp Lahm wrote in his autobiography about Klinsmann’s brief spell as coach there in the 2008-09 season: “We were only working on our fitness in training, he didn’t care much for tactical stuff. It was up to the players to come together before a match and discuss how we were going to play.”
With South Korea, there was also a strong focus on fitness.
During a pre-Asian Cup camp in Abu Dhabi, Klinsmann held very intense training sessions. A source with knowledge of the situation, speaking anonymously to protect relationships, said the players were “ran ragged” and that “he absolutely battered them, they were exhausted”.
That supposed exhaustion, not helped by facing a combined 20-plus minutes of added time plus 30 minutes of extra time in their previous two games, came to the fore against Jordan on Tuesday when South Korea visibly looked like they could not rouse themselves. They had left it late in earlier games in the tournament, scoring four goals in injury time, including against Australia and Saudi Arabia. But this was the first time they had failed to register a single shot on target in an Asian Cup match since records began.
Klinsmann was asked by an incredulous journalist if this had ever happened before in his career.
“This was definitely the disappointing part, we did not create enough chances,” Klinsmann said. “Jordan were very physical with us. It was certainly not the first time it happened to me but I was not happy at all.”
Physicality was an area where South Korea came up short and, in mitigation, there was a sense the Arabian teams enjoyed home advantage in Qatar (the hosts beat Jordan 3-1 in Saturday’s final and nearby Iran also made the semis, while Japan and China also struggled), coping better with conditions and negating the attacking sides such as Japan and South Korea, who were physically inferior.
It is believed Klinsmann felt there was a lack of team spirit with a bit of a split in the squad between the top-quality players such as Son, Hwang, Lee and Bayern defender Kim Min-jae who ran the dressing room, but then a drop in quality to several home-based players.
Klinsmann attempted to initiate a winning culture but it’s thought he found an organisation resistant to change. Like, for example, in South Korea’s use of friendlies, with the German keen for tougher tests to prepare his team for tournament play, but finding their FA instead organised easier matches, such as 94th-ranked Vietnam at home (a 6-0 win in October), with a big fear of a loss of face should they suffer defeats.
He had also wanted to stay on in Europe after a September friendly against Saudi Arabia at Newcastle’s St James’ Park to watch Kim play for Bayern but, as per the FA’s protocol, he had to fly back to Seoul for the traditional post-trip press conference at the airport.
His being in Europe, though, was seen as a negative by some, with suggestions that Klinsmann was prioritising spending time there and watching his star players perform for their clubs instead of placing a focus on finding and developing the best domestic talent in the K League, the country’s top flight, to try to bridge the gap in his squad.
“I know you criticise it every time you can, but this is the life of a national-team coach, there’s a lot of travel in my job,” Klinsmann said of his post-Asian Cup plans, when revealing he was going to Europe to visit Son and Lee before their World Cup qualification campaign resumes on March 21 with a home game against Thailand. Members of Klinsmann’s coaching staff would attend K League games in person but he would watch them later on video, using the scouting tool WyScout.
His focus on his Europe-based stars, both in person and tactically in matches, led to a phrase being coined back home translated as ‘Do-this-for-me football’ — “Son, do this for me”, “Hwang, do this for me”, et cetera — a criticism that he was relying too much on the big names. However, a source close to one of the players told The Athletic that instead, the group failed to produce a single performance that was 100 per cent collective.
Publicly, both Lee and Son asked themselves to be blamed for the semi-final defeat instead of the team and Korean media picked up on how they were willing to take responsibility; a smiling Klinsmann perhaps less so, again an echo of his time with the U.S. national team.
Son, who turns 32 in July and has been considering his international future after winning 122 caps, also defended Klinsmann, saying, “I feel bad for the manager for facing so much negativity. The perspective towards him wasn’t favourable, even before the tournament. Despite such circumstances, the manager handled it well, caring for the players and not showing any signs of giving up until the end. I was deeply impressed by this and I think he will become even stronger through this experience.”
The pair have been texting in the days since South Korea’s tournament finished and Klinsmann understands the player’s emotional response to the semi-final exit, but insists there is “no doubt” Son will continue to play for his country on the road to World Cup 2026.
Tactically, Bento had developed a style over his four years in charge of playing out from the back, but Klinsmann seemed to focus far more on individuals than the team and was accused of a lack of research, both into K League players and also into the opposition, especially for those games against Jordan and Malaysia.
A source with knowledge of the situation added: “There’s a consensus he tries to manage by aura and by ego rather than by a solid tactical plan.”
There is huge pressure not just on Klinsmann but also on the man who hired him, Korea Football Association president Chung Mong-gyu.
The pair have met twice since the Jordan defeat to discuss the fallout and both appear keen to carry on, despite being in the face of such fierce public negativity. Chung is said to have been keen to hire a big name in the world of football to raise the country’s profile, and the FA has been accused of not conducting a thorough process when seeking Bento’s successor.
Emotions and expectations are heightened by the notion that this is South Korea’s golden generation of players, stars from PSG, Bayern and Spurs, plus the in-form Hwang at Wolverhampton Wanderers, enjoying his most prolific season for years.
Instead, the recriminations continue for both the FA and Klinsmann — as does an overwhelming wave of negativity.
Even one of the world’s best golfers couldn’t help but stick the boot in:
It’s incredible achievement for reaching Semi-Final without the manager 👏👏 https://t.co/ClCh6oQWfW
— Byeong Hun An (@ByeongHunAn) February 6, 2024
The press, the public, golfers, everyone is on edge, But an embattled Klinsmann continues to smile his way through the crisis.
“There are a lot of positives to take out of the tournament,” he insisted. “I’m looking forward to restarting for World Cup qualifying.”
He is just about the only person involved with South Korea’s team who is.
(Top photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images)