Words by Tom Danicek
When Kim Young-gwon commented on his trade of shirts with Gerard Piqué at the Club World Cup, he somewhat bizarrely claimed he grew up watching the Barcelona centre back – even though Piqué is just three years older. But when you really think about it, the statement actually does make sense. The year 2015 made for such a nice coming-of-age story for the 25-year-old South Korean defender, it’s not hard to realize that Kim Young-gwon had, in fact, been growing up and maturing until very recently.
Ultimately, Kim has proven his numerous critics wrong on so many fronts this past year. He was selected into the Champions League Dream Team (unlike 2013 when his Guangzhou triumphed as well), he was present in the Chinese Super League Team of the Year for the third time in a row, and he turned out to be a great leader for South Korea, even captaining their golden East Asian Cup side…
Initially, it was supposed to be a rather different year for Kim Young-gwon. His reputation had been hit greatly by the collectively chaotic South Korean defending at the 2014 World Cup, and so coming into the Asian Cup, Kim wasn’t even considered a guaranteed starter. A ball-playing centre back who had grown synonymous with the occasional brainfart was nowhere near to be a ‘safe option’ for Uli Stielike, who therefore opened the tournament with a CB tandem that ended up being benched for good.
Kim’s game appeared to be more polished from the very first sight, entering the Cup in the second game against Kuwait. Less adventurous on the ball, yet still constructive and bold enough to make the South Korean build-up tick (and stamp the team’s progression to the final with a nice half-volley), the left-footed centre half was also more positionally disciplined and overall focused, winning eight fouls as opposed to just one conceded, while leading the Taeguk Warriors to an impressive 435-minute spell without conceding.
Of course, this still might have been only a flukey streak, but Kim’s journey to complete redemption soon continued with his assured performances at the East Asian Cup. There, South Korea conceded only once, with their captain himself being awarded the prize for the best defender of the tournament.
Operating much higher up the pitch and acting like a proper playmaker, it was clear Kim’s confidence was peaking. His burst onto the big scene in 2012 was nothing short of amazing – with the bronze Olympics and his well-deserved Guangzhou move to boast about – but this past year still felt somewhat better.
Only now, one would happily nod at another recent suggestion from the player himself that he’d like to play in England some time soon. He actually might be capable of that.
Highlight of the Year: Becoming the KFA Footballer of the Year
It was, in essence, an historic moment. A centre back beating Son Heung-min, not long before being voted the AFC International Footballer of the Year, to a prize distributed by Son’s home Football Association? No way. After all, you would need to go 10 ceremonies back, all the way to 1977, to find another acknowledged defender in Cho Young-jeung.
Yet, it was a deserved triumph nevertheless. Kim Young-gwon was partially responsible for more than 10 clean sheets the Taeguk Warriors have kept throughout 2015, and that was hard to overlook. Asked to partner four different colleagues over the year, Kim always represented commendable presence at the back, and was mostly responsible for the flattering fact that no other national team has conceded fewer goals per match in 2015 than South Korea.