- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2003

JEONJU, Korea — It could be said that Denis Laktionov is the Russian who came in from the cold and heated up the Korean League.

The speedy midfielder was discovered on the far-eastern Russian island of Sakhalin in 1996, and since his arrival in Korea as an 18-year-old, he has become the K-League’s most prized star. In 178 games he has scored 47 goals and earned 37 assists.

After a long career with Suwon, a team backed by Samsung Electronics, the Russian national team player was claimed by Korean champ Songnam Chunma at the beginning of the 2003 season in a two-year, $3.8million deal.

Laktionov, a former hockey player, was spotted playing for F.C. Sakhalin in Russia’s second division by Korean soccer scouts. The scouts were looking for ethnic Koreans living on the bleak island.

There is a large Korean community on Sakhalin, which lies between Japan and Russia, and is still a disputed territory between those two countries. In World War II, Japan sent tens of thousands of Koreans to Sakhalin to work in the brickyards and coal mines to support the war effort. Many of the Koreans never returned to their homeland and today many in their 80s are demanding compensation from Japan.

This week Laktionov, known as simply Denis to his fans, gained his Korean citizenship. By becoming a citizen he will earn more money and get a bonus from the team, which can now hire another foreign player. Each team is limited to five overseas players and can play three on the field at one time. Laktionov can’t play for the Korean national team, as he has already played for Russia.

The 5-foot-7 Laktionov, who would easily shine in Major League Soccer, originally wanted to be a hockey player, but he broke his arm in a game when he was 13 and decided to turn to soccer. He is an avid fan of the NHL and closely follows the careers of its Russian stars. Recently he brought his son, Nikita, a hockey stick, but much to the dismay of his dad, the youngster threw down the stick and started kicking a soccer ball.

In yesterday’s Peace Cup game in Jeonju, Laktionov played well but could not save Songnam (2-1, 6 points) from falling 1-0 to Lyon (2-1, 6 points) in the battle to win GroupA. The French champion won the group on goal differential and advanced to the championship game on Tuesday in Seoul. In other action, Besiktas of Turkey tied South Africa’s Kaizer Chiefs 2-2.

Will Hiddink return? — Korean fans are hoping that Guus Hiddink will return to coach South Korea and help the national team qualify for the 2006 World Cup. He would no doubt be paid a fortune after he led the Koreans to the semifinals in 2002.

Back in Korea this week with Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven, Hiddink is being followed by more than 140 Korean journalists wherever he goes. His contract at PSV runs out next year but soccer observers believe the Dutchman will unlikely return.

“How do you top what he did last time?” said one journalist. “Why spoil the legacy?” Hiddink remains under contract with the Korean team as a technical advisor.

Hiddink leads PSV against the Los Angeles Galaxy at Suwon today in the final game of GroupB play. The Galaxy need to beat PSV and hope that German club 1860 Munich downs Uruguay’s Nacional in Ulsan in order to advance to the $2million final against Lyon in Seoul on Tuesday.

In today’s game Hiddink will face his Korean team captain Bo Myung Hong, who joined the Galaxy this season.

“I know Hong and I know the famous players Cobi Jones and [Alexi] Lalas,” Hiddink said. “The Galaxy is a typical American team, who are strong with lots of speed. This game will be good for us as we prepare for the new season.”

It’s only football — Young-Pyo Lee, who played brilliantly for Korea at last year’s World Cup and was brought to PSV by Hiddink, was under pressure by some of his fans not to play in the Peace Cup.

Lee is a devoted Christian with connections to Korea’s amateur club Hallelujah. His Web site was bombarded by born again Christians urging him not to play in a soccer tournament sponsored by the Korean-based Unification Church. Lee made the trip anyway, telling one reporter, “It’s just football after all.”

The Hallelujah soccer club was a founding member of the K-League and won the first title in 1983 before dropping its professional status and leaving the league.

A pretty big deal — Doing well at the 2002 World Cup proved very beneficial in more ways then one for Korean players. The story goes that after the Korean team beat Portugal to reach the round of 16, the players sat down to bargain with President Kim Dee Jung as he arrived to congratulate the team in the locker room.

Hiddink and Hong asked Kim to exempt all the players on the 23-man squad from doing their two-year compulsory military service. Kim obliged, and the players only have to report for a four-week basic military training course.

It was reported this month that Ahn Jung-Hwan, whose goal defeated Italy in the second round of the World Cup and who now plays in Japan, had just completed his four weeks training.

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