Korea Opportunities – #FIFAWWC and the colourful world of English coach Colin Bell

(Han Myung-Gu/Getty Images)

The road less travelled has never really deterred Colin Bell. Approaching four years as the first foreign coach of Korea Republic’s women’s national team, the Leicester native now achieves a World Cup ambition with a country solidified in his affections.

“The last few months, I had a four-year contract offer from a club in Germany as technical director, women’s football, and I almost went for it, but I just feel so satisfied here in Korea that I decided to turn it down.”

The coach who made Arsenal’s Katie McCabe Republic of Ireland captain at 21, Colin Bell has assisted in the careers of numerous players competing at this FIFA Women’s World Cup. Leading the last team unaffiliated with a men’s club to win the UEFA Women’s Champions League (1.FFC Frankfurt in 2015), the former Leicester City youngster made Germany a home for over three decades.

It is life in Asia, however, that has captured his imagination in recent years, with an expanded role with the Korea Football Association a further factor in his decision to this year extend his contract until the end of 2024.

“I really love living in Korea, it’s a fantastic place to live,” he explains. “I feel really happy and content in my everyday life.”

“There’s a high standard of living, the country’s very modern. I was out all day recently on my bike, along the Han River, great weather, and I went to my favourite German restaurant in Itaewon.

“People are really friendly, very respectful, and it’s an unbelievably-safe country. I often give this example, and it’s a true statement: theoretically, you can sit in a café, in whichever place, leave your laptop on the table, your telephone, your wallet, and go for a walk for an hour, come back, and everything is still there.”

Spending time also in Norway with Avaldsnes IL in 2016, Ilsan is the place where he now resides; less bustling than capital Seoul but with just enough of the city life. For the time being, however, his staff and players have set up camp in Australia, as World Cup group games in Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane come calling.

The first World Cup game of a 34-year coaching career is a dream realised, he says, even if family back in England will have a 3am kick-off on Tuesday (25th July) to grapple with, should they tune in! Spending time heavily studying their opening opponents Colombia in recent months, they are a team whose ability and resolve he has been impressed by, though his own side have proven themselves a potentially-stubborn proposition for anyone.

Eliminating Australia on the way to finishing 2022 Asian Cup runners-up, the past couple of years have also seen them hold Olympic gold medallists Canada to a goalless draw, while becoming the first country to stop world champions USA scoring at home in 60 games. By definition, a team ranked 17th in the world comes with inconsistency, but their coach feels they have no reason at all to be fazed by a group also containing Germany and Morocco.

“I think everybody would be really pleased if we get out of the group. For me personally, I know that if we are healthy and we’ve got everybody on board – and you always need a bit of luck – that we are quite capable to get out of that group, and also to advance to the latter stages.

“Everything has to go right, of course, but I don’t fear anybody, as long as we are at full strength, and we can get the players maybe fitter than they’ve ever been before. How women’s football’s developing, it’s much more athletic than it was four or five years ago, the speed of play, the speed of thought, the tactical nuances, they’re improving all the time.”

The physical aspect has been a continued area of focus, and admitted frustration, with efforts to work with domestic clubs to enhance the intensity of training and league play somewhat resisted.

“Officially, this is a semi-pro league, but the players do not do anything else apart from play football, so there’s enough time. I always say this, if it’s Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Lyon, Barcelona, our teams here have exactly the same amount of time with their players as these clubs.”

Their WK League had a star return home last year, as creative force Ji So-yun joined Suwon after eight trophy-filled years with Chelsea. The 32-year-old has been recently battling back from the ankle problem that sidelined her in February’s Arnold Clark Cup in England, an injury that the national team have carefully managed, with an extra physio specially assigned to her in April’s camp.

Bell and Australian assistant coach Matt Ross (himself a former 1.FFC Frankfurt boss) have committed to learning Korean since their arrival, with Bell sometimes able to deliver the entirety of a ten-minute team meeting in the language. For certain moments, help is naturally required, with long-time translator Jang Yun-jung an invaluable member of his support staff.

Six-time Women’s Super League champion Ji, though, can be an effective go-between when it comes to in-game communication.

“During the game, if I need something quick, I’ll give Ji that info, or (recent Tottenham Hotspur midfielder) Cho (So-hyun), but Cho’s been away; she came into the April camp but she’d been away for nine months. So, my first person to speak with is always Ji.

“It can also happen in training, I’ll just say, ‘Ji, I want this and this – tell the girls.’ I think that’s a good effect as well, because then the players are also participating and they’re empowered.”

Colin Bell leads a huddle with his Korea Republic players at the 2023 Arnold Clark Cup (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

In a training exercise taken from ex-Argentina and Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa, Bell explains how fouls are permitted and Ji never loses a challenge, with strength an aspect of her game he feels is overlooked. Aiming to circumvent the team’s accepted limitation in that regard by moving the ball fast enough in matches to minimise upper-body duels, they have also been boosted by the addition of two players in particular.

The first was six-foot-plus forward Park Eun-sun, 36, brought back from the international wilderness.

“She was out of the national team for seven years, but when I first came in 2019, the first game I ever saw was Seoul City, where she plays. After that game, I said to my translator, ‘I want to speak with this player,’ because I already knew that she was over 30.

“All I said on that evening was, ‘Eun-sun, maybe one day I’ll need you, so please, please, don’t retire yet!’ There’s nobody in Korea like her.

“We may have found an understudy now, but she’s a very-young player: Go Yoo-na (of Hwacheon KSPO).”

Then came the surprise inclusion in the provisional World Cup squad of the first dual national in the team’s history – New Jersey-born Casey (Yujin) Phair. One of three Under-17 players initially selected, the forward was ultimately the one to make the final 23, turning 16 years old in the time between the provisional and final squad announcements.

“I first saw Casey last year when she came over to Korea with her parents for the first time. She has the typical ‘American’ style of play; very physical and direct.

“Obviously, she has a lot to learn tactically, so I want to help her in this area. We don’t have many players in Korea but we have some very good ones, and I want to give all young players a boost, plus our underage coaches new motivation to keep working hard.”

The team’s three previous World Cup campaigns have resulted in just a solitary win, a 2-1 group victory over Spain in Ottawa in 2015 to reach the round of 16. As they bid to break new ground, the tournament also brings a reunion for Bell with Germany’s Svenja Huth and Kathy Hendrich, both now of Wolfsburg but part of the Champions League-winning Frankfurt team against Paris Saint-Germain in 2015.

Also in that side was Switzerland’s Ana-Maria Crnogorčević, embarking upon this World Cup after recently lifting her third UWCL, with Barcelona. Featuring for the Netherlands, meanwhile, is midfielder Jackie Groenen (PSG), one of five Frankfurt players to appear with Bell in a music video for the Heldmaschine song ‘Wer einmal lügt’.

With the band’s Tobias Kaiser then Bell’s guitar teacher, Frankfurt had delighted them by using their track ‘Weiter’ as their goal music when top-scoring at the Hallenpokal 5-a-side tournament (formerly contested by Frauen-Bundesliga teams). Bell has also enjoyed a 25-year friendship with multi-million-selling artist Gary Numan, dating back to a meeting set up by FC Köln’s media department (where he was assistant coach for the men’s team) before Numan’s concert in Cologne.

A coach whose off-field passions have always been a vital accompaniment to his life in football, music continues to be central.

“When we were in England for the Arnold Clark Cup, the last game against Italy was in Bristol, so the next day we were flying back, but we had a bit of time, so we took the players into the city so they could have a look around. As soon as I got off the bus, I saw a music shop, and they had a mini-travel-guitar, and they only had one, so I bought it!

“I took it back with me to Korea. I’ve really got more into the music, because I have a mini-synthesiser, I’ve got Logic Pro on my MacBook, so I can programme my own music.

“I can take the mini-synthesiser, my MacBook, microphone, so like a mini-studio, with me into camp, and it really is so relaxing; couple of hours, take your mind off the football. I don’t publish them anywhere but I’ve covered maybe 50 of Gary Numan’s songs now!

“I wouldn’t dare send one to Gary; sometimes I’ve thought about it, ‘Should I just send it and see what he thinks?’ and then I’ve gone ‘I better not!’ My assistant, Matt, really is a very good musician; he can play guitar, he can play bass, he can play harmonica, so if I get stuck on anything, he can sort me out and show me what to do.”

Korea Republic women’s national team head coach Colin Bell with taekwondo champion Lee Dae-hoon.

With K-pop an unsurprising favourite among the players, there have been karaoke sessions for the squad and staff along the way. The shortage of notable international artists appearing in Korea in concert is the only drawback, but it has become a place he loves.

He highlights his gratitude to former technical director Kim Pan-gon (now head coach of the Malaysian men’s national team), as well as Dutchman Ruud Dokter for his tutelage in a similar role in the Irish set-up. Both, he explains, provided crucial guidance in managing upwards.

The devotion for his work remains, though he feels he has mellowed slightly since previous jobs, the more that his understanding of players and their differing personalities has diversified. While enjoying the versatility in schedule that international management brings between camps – he recently found time for a first picnic since childhood – being on the pitch still brings the greatest adrenaline shot.

“The training ethic in the team, it’s unbelievably good. One of the Korean words is ‘ne’ (네), which can mean ‘yes’ or ‘I see,’ and it can be used in different contexts, so if I give information to the players on the pitch, I say, ‘Okay? Do you understand?’ and then you get 23 coming back to you all shouting ‘ne!’

“You just get goosepimples, it’s fantastic. The atmosphere and the work ethic on the pitch, it’s a Godsend, to be honest.”

Spending so much of life since the early-1980s in Germany, it was under former Borussia Dortmund II boss Jan Siewert that he would finally return to work in England, with Huddersfield Town in 2019. With the club still looking for an upturn under the German coach that hadn’t materialised in the final few months of their Premier League adventure, it was a project cut short during the opening month of the new season.

“I never got a first-team appearance in Leicester, so at least I can say I had three Championship matches as assistant manager! It was great to experience football at that level, it was just disappointing that I wasn’t able to show what I could do; I felt as though I was just being introduced and getting back into it, and then it was all over.”

He credits the West Yorkshire club for being ‘very fair’ when it came to allowing him to exit his contract for Korea. In his current home country, the women’s game has been building in profile, aided to an extent by marketing campaigns, though the Korea Republic players know that a strong World Cup showing is required for a truly-noticeable stride to be taken.

Even before their first game at the tournament, players and staff alike have already excelled in the style department, with a super-sleek unveiling of their official suits. On the pitch, their coach hopes above all else for an authentic reflection of what they have strived to become.

“That we are a very-fast, technically-very-good, disciplined, and organised team that plays attractive, proactive football. We’re also very flexible; I’ve used so many different tactical systems or formations, and I’ll change three or four times if necessary, even in the match.

“The players are brilliant, we adapt to the situation, so that’s what I’ve tried to teach them. On a good day, and everything comes our way, everybody’s on their game, we can play.”

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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