Kim Dong-jin: “Advocaat was like father to me”

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South Korean defender Kim Dong-jin spent three and half seasons at Zenit St. Petersburg and participated in the club's biggest victories - winning their first Russian championship in 23 years, and lifting the UEFA Cup and Supercup. In honour of the Blue-White-Sky blues’ 95th anniversary Kim told us how the team achieved that success, why he was scared of Dick Advocaat and what Russian words he picked up from his teammates.

“I really wanted to become a coach and didn’t really think about any other job”

Kim left Zenit in January 2010 and returned to South Korea. After playing at home, as well as in China and Thailand, in 2017 the defender moved to Hong Kong side Kitchee, where he finished his career last year.

“I was 37 years old – it is not too young, you know,” said the ex-Zenit player. “I didn’t have a chance to play again. My club gave me the opportunity to work as a coach, and I agreed. Even if I had played one more year, it wouldn’t have been a big deal for me. That’s why I decided to finish with football as a player and start a new chapter. I collected a lot of experience as a footballer so I couldn’t think about any other job and wanted to be a coach.

My biggest inspiration as a coach during my playing career was Dick Advocaat. Now I like Pep Guardiola, but it isn’t about tactics. He is a good coach, but mostly I like him as a person. During my last game, when Kitchee played in Hong Kong against Manchester City, I played 15 minutes, and after coming off Guardiola shook my hand, hugged me, and gave me a club shirt with my name on the back. That’s why he inspired me.

In my job I like it when a player realizes their potential. When I start my work, the player is at one level, but I want him to move higher - this is what coaching is about. I like how my youth players use basic football factors: they have a sense for the ball, as well as good skills and  passing. I like when my team dominate possession and attack a lot. To become a senior head coach I need time to improve myself and gain experience. If I was suddenly dropped into such a role, there’s a strong chance I'd fail. I’m not ready for this job now and need time to learn.

“It is safer now in Hong Kong”

At Kitchee Kim doesn't just work with youth players; he is also a defensive coach for the senior side. “We were knocked out of the Hong Kong Cup quarter-finals despite having won it the season before. We were third when the league was stopped because of coronavirus,” the novice coach said. “My youth team played eight games and won all of them, then their league was also stopped.

There are many limits in Hong Kong due to coronavirus; many things have changed. People want to meet, but they can’t and must socially distance. Sometimes it is better to stay home. This is very boring, but first and foremost we must think about our health; it is very important. The Kitchee youth team don’t have any games and training sessions now. The senior team aren’t playing either, but they have group training on the pitch. Each group consists of four players and they have been training for one hour every day.

Hong Kong people protect themselves from getting virus. Everyone wears a mask when they go outside. If you don’t have a mask, there will be problems. I hope we will be better soon. I am not sure, but there were hundreds of people who got that virus [as of 25 May there have officially been 1,065 infected citizens – Premierliga.ru]. Someday maybe one or two people are ill, on another around 10. But now there are fewer people who have got virus. It is very safe here.

“I wanted to get experience in Europe”

In the summer of 2006, Kim became one of the first newcomers to Zenit under Dick Advocaat. The Dutch coach knew the defender from the South Korean national team, which he had coached from the autumn of 2005 to the World Cup in Germany. “Before the tournament, Advocaat asked me: “Would you like to go to Russia?” the South Korean recalled. “I answered: “Let me think, I can’t decide immediately.” Two or three days later he tried again and I accepted his offer. At that time we didn’t have much news about Russian football, we didn’t see the games, and we only knew about leagues in England, Spain, Germany, Italy. But I trusted Advocaat, and if he decided to go there, I could also follow him.

The only thing I had heard about Zenit before was that Advocaat would work there. My agent talked with the club about my contract. I also knew that they had good money: compared to back home my salary at Zenit was much higher. At that stage I’d only played in South Korea, so I wanted a new challenge by going to Europe and getting experience. If I played well in Russia, I’d like to go to England for example. That was my dream.

When I arrived in Russia with Lee Ho, it was summer and there were white nights in St. Petersburg. I experienced this for the first time so I couldn’t sleep, but the city was beautiful. There was also one more Korean player in Zenit, Hyeon Yeong-min, who only stayed for another five or six months. He made our adaptation to Russia easier. We didn’t know anything about the city, but Hyeon explained to us where me and Lee should or shouldn’t go, what is good and bad.

He suggested some good restaurants, but I don’t remember their names exactly. He also talked about such beautiful places like Nevsky Prospect, the Neva river, the Hermitage museum - there were many things he recommended. On the other side, we were warned against going outside late at night because it could get very cold and something dangerous could happen.

“Arshavin dribbled past me a lot - I tried to stop him by tackling”

Hyun left Zenit after the 2006 season, leaving only Kim and Lee at the club. Those two played together for two years, until the latter returned home in early 2009.

“I mostly talked with Lee because we could speak the same language,” said Kim. “With teammates I talked English a little bit or used body language. Later I learned some Russian words, and we could use a few. I had a Korean teacher of Russian language, but I didn’t study much. Konstantin Zyryanov and Roman Shirokov taught me a little bit. They arrived after me and I was very happy, because we built a good relationship. At away games or in the hotel before games, we talked about different things - not too much, but closely.

Yes, we could not talk deeply, but we got each other. I asked them how to speak Russian and showed them a book, then they gave me some explanations. With them I started to feel more comfortable in Russia. Even now I remember their language, because their words were positive, and I always try to keep good memories and to forget negative things.

The people of St. Petersburg were always kind to me. There were moments when I asked for their help because I didn’t know how to get to the place I needed, and people showed me the way. Many Zenit fans live in St. Petersburg, and when they met me, they said: “Oh, it’s you, you’re good”. There was one good experience. When I was driving a car, Russian police stopped me. My driving is often good, but there were some parking issues. I showed the policeman my driving license, then he recognized me and said: “Okay, don’t try it again, you can go.”

When Kim arrived at Zenit, the team was mid-table in the RPL, placed ninth after nine spring rounds. The backbone then was made up of Russian players: Vyacheslav Malafeev, Aleksandr Anyukov, Vladislav Radimov, Igor Denisov, Andrey Arshavin and Aleksandr Kerzhakov. 

“When I joined the team, I was really impressed by Arshavin,” said the South Korean. “For me he was the best Russian player. Another good player at that time was Anyukov. Later Zenit signed Zyryanov, Tymoshchuk, Pogrebnyak – they were all skillful players. But Arshavin was a very creative player, there was no player like him. He could create something to change the game.

Sometimes he played in the centre behind the striker, but mostly he was a left winger, and I was a left-back. It was very comfortable to play with him. In training sessions we often played on the same team, but sometimes we played against each other and it was very difficult to stop him. He beat me so many times because he was so good at dribbling. I tried to stop him with tackles: sometimes it helped, sometimes it couldn’t.

“Advocaat always spoke straight, he didn’t hide anything”

Kim has admitted to South Korean media that he considers Advocaat the best coach in his playing career. “He taught me many things with the national team and Zenit,” the former player said. “Even when I made mistakes, he tried to encourage me with positive things. Sometimes I lost concentration and he started to scream, those words switched me on again. 

Advocaat influenced me a lot. I remember he said to me: “Dong Jin, concentrate”, “Dong Jin, you can do it”, “Dong Jin, you are a good player.” He gave me confidence, that’s why I liked working with him. One day during a national team training game I lost position and we conceded a goal. But he told me: “Okay, no problem. Even if it’s a big mistake you don’t need to punish yourself, just encourage”.

When I met him for the first time with the national team, he made such an impression on me with his seriuos face so I couldn’t say anything. I just said “Hello”. I was very scared of him, because I was very young at that time and couldn’t speak any English. We had a Korean translator, so there were three guys in our conversations.

Advocaat was very emotional. He was like that at every meeting. After defeats he was very angry, but when we won he was very happy. Sometimes I heard bad words, but in general he was a pure person. Advocaat always spoke directly and didn’t hide anything. We had personal meetings, but not so often because I couldn’t speak English very well. After training I had lunch at the club training center, and sometimes I talked with him there. Sometimes he called me to his office. We discussed Zenit games and Russian life. He was interested in whether I missed my parents because I lived alone. He also looked for news concerning the  Korean national team, where I was still playing.”

In 88 games for Zenit, Kim scored five goals, four of them in 2007. “Advocaat always told me that when Arshavin takes the ball inside and leaves the space, you need to exploit it. I tried to attack more and had chances to score. On the other side there was Anyukov, he was a more attacking defender and went forward a lot. This is what Advocaat demanded from us both.

The Dutch manager worked at Zenit until August 2009; after losing 2-0 to Tom Tomsk, he was sacked. “I was very disappointed when he left Zenit,” said Kim. “We came to the club together, but after he was fired, I stayed. I was very sad; he was like a father to me during that time. In our last meeting I didn’t talk too much, but said I just hoped to see him again and wished him all the best. He told me to continue working hard, look after my health and keep improving. I remember that Advocaat was crying at the airport when he left St. Petersburg – I had never seen him like that. I always thought that he was stronger than that.

After his departure I started to set my mind on training and matches, because if I had a chance to play, I should do my best for the team. I always thought about this, nothing else. I didn’t get many chances, but I was okay.

“Before Saturn I couldn’t sleep the whole night”

Under Advocaat, Zenit finished the 2006 RPL season in fourth place, and became champions the following year. “The title-winning season was amazing. I heard that Zenit hadn’t been champions for a long time [before the 2007 season Zenit had not won the Russian Premier Liga for 23 years – Premierluga.ru]. On the last matchday we played against Saturn, and it was an amazing game. If we had lost Spartak Moscow could have won the title. Overall we were confident, were strong going forward and didn’t concede many goals. Advocaat made the team united and successful. Everyone clicked with each other.

He really motivated us in training sessions and games, and everyone followed him. He got us going with his speeches, and the players listened to him. He made so many speeches, so it is difficult to remember something that stands out. All the time Advocaat said the same things, both with the national team and Zenit: “We are together, we are stronger, we need concentration”. That was important to have the same way of thinking, behaviour and targets. He kept a strong discipline in the team. If something wrong happened out of the pitch, he could fine the player or have a serious talk with him.

I don’t remember the start of championship season so well, but game by game I felt more confidence in our style of play. Nevertheless, we needed to fight for the title until the last matchday, so I wasn’t thinking about the championship. Before that game against Saturn I didn’t sleep the whole night because of the pressure; I was very nervous. I wanted to be a champion, because Zenit hadn’t won the league for a long time, and it was my first chance in Europe to win a trophy. The game was important for everyone, but I tried to keep focused and put everything into the game".

Zenit beat Saturn after a goal by Radek Sirl in the first half and a save from Alejandro Dominguez in added time to win the league. It was the second title in Kim's career after he had won the K-League in 2000 - the highest South Korean division - with Anyang (now FC Seoul). However, the then 18-year-old defender played in only four league games in what was only his first season at senior level. His contribution to Zenit’s championship was much more as he featured in 24 RPL games, as well as scoring a decisive double in the 2-1 win over Tom Tomsk on matchday 21.

After winning the league championship, Zenit qualified for the UEFA Cup knockout stages. They had a bye for the last round of the group stage (there were five teams in the group that season), so AZ Alkmaar's victory over an unmotivated Everton would have seen Zenit dumped out of the competition. Instead the Dutch lost, and the Blue-White-Sky Blues scraped into the knockouts from third place. The spring of 2008 turned out to be a roaring success. Thanks to away goals, Advocaat's team knocked out Villarreal and Marseille, defeated Bayer Leverkusen away and Bayern Munich at home, before beating Rangers in the Manchester final.

“I didn't think about winning the UEFA Cup, as I hadn’t with the championship, until the final match,” said Kim. “Yes, we kept almost the entire title-winning team, added new players and continued to play in the same style, but we were given very strong opponents in the knockout stages like Bayern Munich. We needed to fight in every single game and to not dream early on about the cup - just to think about the immediate opponent, how we should prepare, and then the result would come.

In the latter stages of the competition I got an injury and missed three games, and I could only cheer on my teammates. I couldn’t sit on the bench, only in stands, and that was fun. I spent little time in the final game against Rangers, but it didn’t matter for me if I played one minute or 90. I was honored to be a part of that victory on the pitch. Zenit scored the second goal when I was on the pitch, so I was very happy. I experienced that happiness for the first time in my life. When I was younger, I watched these moments only on TV, but I dreamed about it. In Manchester that dream came true.

But I was most impressed with how we celebrated the Russian championship in 2007. This is one of my best memories. After the game, the team returned to St. Petersburg, and there were a lot of people on the streets. We came to Petrovsky stadium, which was full of fans waiting for us. After the UEFA Cup victory I remembered that we went to the Kremlin in Moscow and visited President Dmitry Medvedev personally. I was very surprised with it.

“I hope Zenit will be more popular in Europe and around the world”

Of the championship-winning side, not only Kim turned to coaching. Konstantin Zyryanov is currently in charge of Zenit’s youth team, and Anatoly Tymoshchuk is assisting Sergey Semak, who played against the South Korean for FC Moscow and Rubin Kazan, in the main team. “Semak was a very smart player,” said Kim. “I don’t know how he is as a coach: I just watch the results and follow the club on Instagram. I think Semak is a good coach because he has successful results. He is still young, but has already won the championship in his new role. This season Zenit have a strong position in the league, are attacking well and scoring a lot. I saw the highlights of the game when they defeated Rostov 6-1. What Semak has made with the team is amazing: it is very attacking and creative.

“When I played with Tymoshchuk, he helped me with many things. On the pitch he always covered my position when I joined attacks. We talked about football, and he was also interested in how Russian life was for me. Once he asked me: “Would you like to go with me to a hockey game? I have a ticket.” I answered: “Yes, of course!” I was really interested because I’d never seen hockey before. Tymoshchuk was a good friend. He thought about me, even though our relationship was not so close. I remember Pogrebnyak came with us, and the hockey game was very interesting.

I am still in contact with Zyryanov via Instagram. We send messages to each other when something happens, such as wishing each other “Happy New Year”, “Merry Christmas” or congratulating each other for celebrations. We also ask “How are you” or write “I miss you”. Sometimes we roomed together before games and talked about many things; not deeply, but we tried to get each other. 

For me he is a very kind person. But when the team were staying in a hotel or going out to eat, Zyryanov would sit on the same table beside me and would take care of me. These were very good moments for me. I hope he will become Zenit head coach and will be one of the best coaches in the future.

In 2017 I was invited to the 10th anniversary of our Russian championship victory, but I had some work in Hong Kong and I could not go to St. Petersburg despite really wanting to. That’s why I also did not come to Russia during the 2018 World Cup, but I saw the game when South Korean beat Germany. I know the players said that the new Zenit stadium is amazing. The Korean team had a training base near St. Petersburg, and they liked the city, the food, and the people. I hope to visit the city as soon as possible. I want to meet friends and watch a game at the new arena, but even the Petrovsky stadium is still a very memorable place for me.

I wish Zenit success in the future and to be one of the best clubs in Europe. I hope if the team reaches the Champions League, the guys will compete well and qualify from the group stage. I hope they will also win the title again after the season restarts, and stay healthy. This club did so much for my career and life until now. I hold many good memories about that time; I thank Zenit a lot. I hope they will grow around Europe and the world, and that players will want to go there, and other people to support the team. I hope Kitchee and Zenit will one day organize a friendly match either in Hong Kong or in St. Petersburg.”

The interview was published for the first time in honor of 95th Zenit club anniversary on 25 May


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