Finding Opportunity in Crisis… “You Have to Prepare for the Realities of College Football,” Says Head Coach Seok-Joo Ha

College soccer, once the most popular sport in the world, is losing its reputation. The perception of failure to become a professional soccer player has led to an increase in the number of players giving up their dreams at a young age. The sport has also become increasingly distant from public attention. Ha Seok-ju, 55, head coach of Aju University, finds a way to survive the crisis. He is making every effort to help college soccer rise again.온라인바카라

Starting out in college

Ha made his professional debut at Busan Daewoo (now Busan IPark) before playing for Cerezo Osaka, Bissell Kobe (Japan), and the Pohang Steelers. He has 95 caps for his country, scoring 23 goals. He was so good that he was nicknamed the “left-footed master” during his playing days. “I think all soccer players would say that their playing days were the best,” he laughs, “but I think I can do better,” he says.

As his nickname suggests, he played every position on the left side of the field, from wing-forward (side attacker) to midfielder to wing-back (side defender). “If you know how to run a game, you can play in various positions to a certain extent. I experienced different positions depending on the coaches’ choice, but the best position for me was wingback,” he explained.

“But I wonder what it would have been like to play right wing forward. In the past, wing forwards used to use their speed to simply put in crosses. In modern soccer, when you have a left-footed player on the right and a right-footed player on the left, you can use your speed to get into the penalty box and take shots. It gives us the advantage of being able to play in a variety of ways.”

After coaching Pohang, Gyeongnam FC, and the Jeonnam Dragons, he became the head coach of his alma mater, Ajou University, in 2011. He took the helm of Jeonnam in August 2012 and led the team from the relegation zone to stay in the top flight. He returned to Ajou University in 2015 and has been with the program ever since.

“I didn’t start out as a university coach,” Ha said. I wanted to go abroad and gain experience. But there were some things I didn’t want to do,” he says, “I don’t like to have anyone involved when I become a head coach. There is a part of me that wants full control. But I’ve seen a lot of civic clubs being controlled by external factors. I’ve seen the position of managers falter when the owners change, and it makes me skeptical of leaders.”

Ha has been leading Ajou University for a long time, and he values character the most. As soccer is a team sport, players need to get along well with each other. “Character and good manners are important,” he says. Some players have learned that from a young age, but there are some players whose behavior is not good to see. You have to teach them those things and move on,” he said.

Korean soccer in crisis

The gap between South Korea and Japan in soccer is widening. Recently, the national team suffered a humiliating 0-3 loss to Japan in a five-match series. The gap starts with infrastructure. Ha, who played in Japan during his playing days, was concerned about this. “In the past, there were a lot of people playing soccer, so there were a lot of good players. Recently, as the population cliff (the point in the life cycle where consumption peaks and the number of people aged 45-49 begins to decline) has intensified, there are fewer and fewer elementary school students. Without students, it’s not an environment that produces many good players.”

“In Japan, even if a college player signs a professional contract, they still graduate from school. The system is well organized. Right now, Korea is in an ambiguous state. We’ve created a system where people pursue their studies when they don’t have the environment to do so, and as a result, they’re neither here nor there. We are losing ground to the Japanese players. It’s unfortunate that the gap is widening.”

College soccer has been particularly challenged by the changing landscape. With the implementation of the mandatory under-22 rule in the K League, more and more players are quitting soccer if they don’t find a job by their sophomore year of college. Ha expressed concern that players who only saw themselves as professionals were giving up their dreams so easily.

“Bae Jun-ho (Stoke City) was ranked No. 1 in high school,” Ha said. When we played practice matches, it was definitely different. “It’s right for players who excel in high school to go to the pros,” he said, “but it’s also important for those who don’t to spend time in college. Some players come to prominence later in life. Even if you don’t become a professional player, you can still graduate and find what you can do, such as a coach or agent, but I think you give up too easily.”


In 2015, Aju University introduced a front office for the first time in college soccer, taking charge of home game operations and promotion. It also turned the home opener of the U League into a festival. This year, Ha invited his former teammates and the cast of the entertainment program “Goal Hitting Girls” to perform the ceremony.

He said, “Ajou University had received a lot of support in the past, but by the time I came back, it was somewhat stagnant. I started by laying artificial turf on campus in cooperation with the president and the city of Suwon. We created a sponsorship committee and organized a front desk. We started with the intention of having fun,” he said. “We organized events and invited soccer players, and it became a huge success. We had almost 2,000 people at our home opener this year, and it’s getting bigger every year,” he laughs. The players, who were unfamiliar with the program at first, are now shaking off the pressure and enjoying it.

“It’s not easy for college students to be interested in one sports team. We need to give them a variety of excitement. We want them to relieve their stress through soccer,” he explained.

At the same time, the team is also putting in a lot of effort externally. In May, Ha took on the role of vice president of the Korea Football Association, where he advocates for school soccer and elite players. “I’m visiting elementary and middle school games to see if there are any problems,” he says. I’m talking to the KFA as well as the Korean Professional Football Association. “In the long run, there should be 16 teams in the K League 1. That way, players will have more options.”

Looking ahead to the Asian Games

Ha competed in the 1994 Hiroshima Asian Games as a player and finished fourth. The team played a dominant game against Uzbekistan in the quarterfinals, but a single mistake cost them. “We had beaten Japan in the quarterfinals, so we were in a good mood. We dominated our opponents in the quarterfinals, but we lost because of one mistake. I really felt the fear of single-elimination matches, and the memory is still fresh in my mind.” He continued, “Our players now have a clear motivation of military exemption. Even if I don’t tell them, they have no choice but to work hard,” he laughed.

The Asian Games and Olympics are only open to athletes aged 23 and under (the Hangzhou Games, postponed by a year, will feature athletes aged 24 and under). The wild card, which allows three athletes to be selected regardless of age, was introduced at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Ha, along with Hwang Sun-hong and Lee Im-saeng, was the first South Korean wildcard. “At the time, it was a lot of pressure,” he says, “because you can’t be authoritarian with young athletes and try to get to know them quickly. Now, times have changed, and I think they will lead better than us.”

Ha also expressed his support for his longtime coach Huang. “He’s done the Wild Card before, so he knows what it takes,” Ha said. He has a lot of experience, but there will be pressure. He’ll be preparing more than anyone else, but I hope he can play the kind of football he wants to play and bring home the gold.” “Our opponents will know that Korea is strong and will drop their defense. If we don’t let that stop us, we can do well.”

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