K-League lowers pro contract signing age limit

The organisers of the Korean K-League voted in favour of lowering the age limit required for signing a professional playing contract. Since 2006 no Korean players under the age of 18 were eligible to sign a pro contract with any club in Korea.

For some clubs this has proven to be problematic at times, evidenced by Hwang Hee-chan who now plays at Austrian club Red Bull Salzburg.  Hwang Hee-Chan was a product of Pohang Jecheol High School, as many Korean clubs sign agreements with high schools to become their affiliated youth team, Jecheol High School is the official youth team of Pohang Steelers.

Late in 2004 when Hwang was about to finish high school, he signed a contract with the Austrians, leaving Pohang Steelers without any chance of being able to generate a transfer fee or any income for their effort put into youth development. An official of a K league club said that "It lets you down and makes you feel betrayed when your long-time youth product signs a pro contract with another club".

Some involved in the K-League believe that lowering the age limit will make more clubs focus on their youth systems, as now they’re able to tie them to pro contracts earlier; which in theory is an attempt by the K-League to stop more players being pinched from under their own association clubs nose like Hwang and if they do get stolen, at least the Korean club will be able to demand a transfer fee for their time put into developing young prospects.

Not all are satisfied with the K-League’s decision though, as the head of the high school’s association said that this revision will only benefit those schools that are affiliated to a pro team. As they will now become a magnet for the best young players competing within the high school system meaning it will create an imbalance to the current high school competition, especially for non-affiliated high schools.

As much as imbalance could be created at high school level, it seems like action had to be taken by the league organisers to protect their members. With European clubs looking further afield to find the best talent possible for economy prices, South Korea was currently an untapped goldmine especially as clubs could not protect their investment by offering players a contract. Seen as an unnecessary evil by the high school association, but as being vital by the football association’s member clubs to continue encouragement of youth development.

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