Jesse Lingard: A slow start, but can K-League move still be a success?

Home » Jesse Lingard: A slow start, but can K-League move still be a success?

Jesse Lingard was never going to raise the international profile of South Korea’s K-League to match K-Pop or K-Drama levels, and the former England international is struggling to make a positive impact in The Land of Morning Calm.

With just 105 minutes played for FC Seoul in the first six games before undergoing knee surgery on Friday, Lingard has made more headlines for injuries and comments from his coach than for anything yet achieved on the pitch.

Of course, these are still very early days.

The former Manchester United player was a surprise signing for the six-time Korean champions in February, easily the biggest in the league’s 41-year history.

Expectations followed suit. Almost 52,000 turned up – the highest attendance in Asia’s oldest professional league since it started counting only purchased tickets in 2018 – to see Lingard’s home debut against Incheon United on 10 March.

Every touch was cheered initially but there have, as yet, been no goals or assists.

Even without injuries, there was a recognition there would be some rustiness, with Lingard’s last appearance before arriving in South Korea coming back in April 2023 for Nottingham Forest.

Flashes of form

“While we all hoped that he would immediately make a big difference for Seoul, we also knew that it would probably take time as he has not played for so long,” Seoul fan Kim Yong-myung told the BBC.

“Most fans still think that he will be a big help if he can stay fit.”

There have been flashes of the ability that took the midfielder into the England team – the last of his 32 caps coming in 2021.

A smart through ball against Incheon almost resulted in a goal for the 31 year-old on his debut and there was a lob and turn that delighted fans.

Against Jeju United the following week, despite a heavy first touch ending a potential one-on-one situation, some smart passing resulted in an own goal, only for that to be ruled out for an offside.

Injuries mean he has not featured since for Seoul, who are in a similar mid-table position to that in which they finished last season.

Rather than performances on the pitch, the biggest talking points so far surrounding Lingard have stemmed from comments by FC Seoul head coach Kim Ki-dong.

“He only played a few minutes, and yet he didn’t work hard and avoided tussle,” Kim said, according to national newspaper Joongang Daily after the Jeju game, Lingard’s third, in which he came off the bench after 58 minutes.

“Fame doesn’t win football games. If it did, I would have brought in a famous retired player.”

This reaction made headlines around the world.

In Asia, Korean coaches are well known for demanding maximum physical effort from players at all times, but journalist Lee Sung-mo believes that a little has been lost in translation.

“It happens quite often when you translate English to Korean or Korean to English without context,” Lee said.

“In Korean culture, Kim’s comments were closer to motivation for Lingard as he wanted him to show more passion on the pitch because he had belief in the player.

“But when you just translate it in English without context, it could be understood as aggressive criticism. It’s very unlikely Kim intended that way.”

That is the way it seemed when Kim sought to cool the situation.

“Some parts about that are a little exaggerated,” said Kim, who took the Seoul job in December. “I told him that I said that in the interview because he is a special player who should take a leading role.”

Lingard also said that he had talked with the coach and there was no issue.

Regardless of the intention, the international image was that Lingard’s Korea move was turning into a nightmare.

It would not be the first time a British player has struggled in the region.

Paul Gascoigne had a short cameo in China, and while Jay Boothroyd impressed in Japan, Gary Lineker’s time with Nagoya Grampus was marred by injury.

In South Korea, former Burnley striker Andy Cooke had a prolific spell 20 years ago for Busan under Ian Porterfield but others, such as Chris Marsden, who signed from Southampton in 2004, and Jordon Mutch, who arrived after leaving Crystal Palace in 2019, did not reach double figures for appearances.

Standards are high. The K-League is regarded as one of the top three leagues in Asia, along with those in Japan and Saudi Arabia, and it has the most successful record of any league in terms of winning continental championships.

Off the pitch, it can be challenging too.

“It seems to be tough for European players to adapt,” said Lee. “The language is totally different, the weather is different and the culture is different. So it is not easy unless the player is ready to open up himself into a new situation and environment.”

Lingard seems willing to do that.

“He may not be playing, but he is coming to watch our games,” said Kim.

“He is also active on social media and posting positively. It seems like he has the right attitude and wants to succeed. We have to wait for him to get fit, settle, and then he will be able to show us what he can do.”

There is still time, according to journalist Lee.

“Lingard has been a bit unlucky so far and he’s clearly showing his commitment for his new club even when he cannot play for them. We need to wait to see until he fully recovers from injuries.

“There’s still a chance that he could be a success in the K-League.”

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