Why South Korea’s Jang Hyun-soo could be Al-Hilal’s trump card against Pohang Steelers in AFC Champions League final

Al-Hilal have so many stars in attack that it is difficult to know where to start. And should the Saudi Arabian team defeat Pohang Steelers of South Korea in the AFC Champions League final on Tuesday, then it is likely that someone like the free-scoring Bafetimbi Gomis will win the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award.

If organizers have a little more imagination, however, then they could do a lot worse than consider Jang Hyun-soo, as the South Korean is one of the most underrated players in Asian football.

The 30-year-old center-back, who can also play as a defensive midfielder, has been with Al-Hilal since July 2019 and played a big part in their third Asian title-winning campaign later that year. And he has appeared in all but eight minutes of this Champions League campaign, doing what he always does: Be consistently solid, making mistakes about as often as he makes headlines.

There have been South Korean internationals at Al-Hilal in the past, such as 2002 World Cup legends Lee Young-pyo and Seol Ki-hyeon, but Jang has established himself as one of the top players in the league.

“Hyun-soo is a coach’s dream,” Razvan Lucescu, the Romanian who was in charge of Al-Hilal when Jang arrived, said last year. “He adapted to the league quickly and did everything that was asked. He is one of those players that you never have to worry about. Every team needs a player like Hyun-soo, he is so professional on and off the pitch.

That could be seen in the lead-up to the big game on Tuesday. Pohang coach Kim Ki-dong worked with Jang when he was on South Korea’s coaching staff at the 2014 Asian Games. Kim told reporters in Korea, where there has been a focus on the Al-Hilal defender for the first time since 2018 (more on that later), that he has been in regular contact with Jang while he has been in Saudi Arabia. As soon as Pohang and Al-Hilal reached the final, Jang stopped all conversations.

It is an attitude that has served him well ever since he made his international debut back in 2013. At the time, Jang was at FC Tokyo — he has never played domestic football in Korea — and he returned to Japan in 2017 after a stint in China. Then came the move to Al-Hilal and a stage on which he has gone from strength to strength. There are not that many players who have won Asia’s biggest club prize more than once.

Jang has had his share of downs, however. During the 2018 World Cup in Russia, he was blamed by South Korean fans for the team’s defeats against Sweden and Mexico. It is a measure of the man that he played a starring role in the very next game — a famous 2-0 win over Germany. In Kazan, against the desperate defending world champions, he was immense.

Perhaps he did not get the recognition he deserved for that but, soon after, he really did make headlines, but not in the way he would have wanted. All South Korean males have to perform military service of almost two years. Jang, however, received an exemption after being part of the team that won gold at the 2014 Asian Games — a reward that not all agree with in a country where military service is a very sensitive issue.

Yet even those who have been granted that prize must still complete basic training (Tottenham Hotspur star Son Heung-min spent three weeks with the Marines in 2020), which can take up to 60 days, as well as 544 hours of sports-related community service. Jang submitted documents to the military authorities stating that he had completed 196 hours of community football coaching in December 2017. A later investigation discovered that there had been heavy snow on the days Jang claimed he was working and so no football activities could have taken place. In other words, Jang had doctored his records to avoid carrying out his military service.

A very dim view is taken of those who try to avoid their duty. In late 2018, the Korean Football Association fined the player and hit him with a lifetime ban from playing for the national team.

Jang apologized, saying: “Even though I received a privilege in mandatory military service, I’m very sorry that I wasn’t able to sincerely carry out the duty as a South Korean man. I clearly understand that there’s no excuse to justify my actions. Even if I reflect on myself and feel deep regret over this incident, I know that isn’t enough. I will become a disciplined player who doesn’t make the same mistakes again in the future.”

The ban means that Jang is stuck on 58 appearances for the national team. Had the episode never happened, then he would surely be moving toward a century of caps for South Korea. The fact that he is not may be a personal pain but is likely to be welcomed by Al-Hilal boss Leonardo Jardim.

If Jang was not banned, he would be regularly jetting off all around Asia on national team duty and would have been on international duty just last week. Instead, he stayed in Riyadh to focus on preparing for the final, in which he has the chance to prevent Pohang from winning a fourth Asian title of their own. Jang may be about to make more headlines in Korea.

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