How the Korean Public Failed Lee Kang-in

I don’t have enough words to express how disgusted I am at the way South Korea crashed out of the 2023 Asian Cup. But there have been enough articles on the web detailing the incompetence of ex-manager Jurgen Klinsmann and KFA President Chung Mong-gyu. 

In the meantime, I think I have just enough words to describe the disgusting barrage of online attacks aimed at Lee Kang-in. 

The abuse hurled at the 22-year-old PSG midfielder has revealed the ugly parts of Korean society that people are too afraid to address—and it’s time that we get real about how a culture’s toxic elements can negatively affect the lives of everyone, even footballers.


I was one of many people in South Korea shocked by the news of an alleged scuffle between captain Son Heung-min and midfielder Lee Kang-in (considered by many to be the next Son Heung-min) before the semi-final match against Jordan.

The story goes that Lee had finished his dinner early and played a game of table tennis with some teammates. Older players including Son got annoyed since team dinners are opportunities for players to bond. Lee said something to Son that the Spurs captain didn’t like, which led to a physical confrontation. Son dislocated his finger and Korea went on to lose the match against Jordan shamefully, registering zero shots on target. 

A simple locker fight over a game of ping-pong has since progressed into a national scandal with companies canceling their commercials of Lee Kang-in and internet users demanding that he be permanently banned from the national team. 

Lee is now potentially facing lawsuits that could cost him over five million U.S. dollars, and his performances for PSG since returning from the Asian Cup have been hollow and lifeless. It seems as if the blowback from ‘ping-pong gate’ has gotten to him.

Cancel Culture in the ROK

In South Korea, companies typically insert “morality clauses” in their contracts with celebrities. Any hint of wrongdoing, whether confirmed or alleged, can lead to that contract’s cancellation. The companies are then legally allowed to recoup their money in the form of penalties which are usually two to three times the value of the endorsement deal. 

In my opinion, the only reason these clauses exist is because cancel culture is too swift in South Korea. Any accusation, whether it’s proven to be true or false, can lead to your downfall. For example, just a few months ago, an actor by the name of Lee Sun-kyun, who appeared in the Oscar-winning film Parasite, was found dead after being accused of using illegal narcotics. 

Despite testing negative for drugs on multiple occasions, the Korean police called him in for questioning numerous times and paraded him in front of the press. The negative public sentiment led to Lee losing many endorsement deals as well and ultimately drove him to take his life.

You would think that the public would have learned from this witch hunt. Yet, I saw thousands of disgusting comments on Lee Kang-in’s Instagram. 

Some of them called for him to retire from the national team, while others asked why he deliberately sabotaged the Asian Cup campaign. It’s a terrible way to show support to a player who has long been considered the next star of Korean football. 

Past Examples

Lee Kang-in isn’t the only KNT player to suffer from fan abuse. Back in the 1990s, striker Hwang Sun-hong, who was recently appointed as interim manager for the senior team, suffered from social anxiety disorder following relentless criticism of his performance at the 1994 FIFA World Cup.

Hwang, despite being one of the most talented players of his generation, didn’t find redemption until the 2002 FIFA World Cup, when he scored the winning goal in the home opener against Poland. 

While fans from other countries routinely abuse their national team players online, none of them have a population as connected to the internet as South Korea, which boasts the fastest average internet speed in the world. 

Lee Kang-In
Artwork by Onkar Shirsekar

Everywhere you look, people are glued to their phones. Casual fans who barely knew the name Lee Kang-in before the Asian Cup are asking me what kind of crime he must have committed to receive the level of hate that he did. It saddens me greatly that instead of talking about his world-class skills, I have to explain that a dispute over ping-pong exploded into a national scandal. 

Finding a Balance

I’m not saying that “cancel culture” shouldn’t be applied when a person has been found guilty of wrongdoing, but canceling contracts for a footballer because of a locker room issue seems overboard. There is no punishable crime under the law. 

I also understand there is a Confucian-inspired culture of respecting your seniors in South Korea that seeps into team sports. It is expected of older players to mentor younger ones and even take them out to meals, while the young ones perform menial chores during training and keep their mouths shut in meetings.

However, there comes a point when this obsession with a top-down approach can lead to toxicity, even in a national team. That’s why former KNT boss Guus Hiddink, our manager at the 2002 World Cup, famously forced older and younger players to dine together, which is something that never happened before. The result: A historic run to the semi-finals (albeit one that was marred by questionable refereeing decisions). 

The next manager of the national team must take steps to ensure that he finds a balance between respecting traditions and protecting younger players. This new generation of players born after the year 2000 do not think or play the game in the same way as their predecessors.  Whether we like it or not, there’s more emphasis on creativity and showmanship. 

As the KFA looks to hire a permanent manager in the May-June window, I pray that some in the fanbase take the time to reflect on how they treat the players and realise that words do have consequences.

Albert Kim

Albert Kim is a Korean American writer/ football analyst toiling in Seoul, SK. His work has appeared on FIFA Plus, Al-Jazeera, and Netflix. Besides the USMNT and South Korean national team, he is a devoted follower of the church of Oliver Kahn and FC Bayern Munchen. His love for football was cultivated during the 2002 World Cup. He apologizes to the Italian people for the golden goal in the round of 16. Follow him on Twitter @Albert_Kim2022 and Insta @albertkim711