After three years coaching his native Puerto Rico, Morales believes he's ready to lead Korea

Korea’s women’s national team was one of the sensations of the Tokyo Olympics, making it to the semifinals in the Japanese capital and finishing fourth for the second time in the last three editions of the tournament in 2021.

Not much, however, has gone right for the Asians since then as they won just one match in major international volleyball tournaments in the following three seasons, at the 2022 World Championships, and are coming from back-to-back winless campaigns in the Volleyball Nations League.

The bad results that will keep the Koreans out of the Olympics for the first time since Beijing 2008 asked for change and 42-year-old Puerto Rican Fernando Morales was the one selected to start turning things around after three successful seasons with his country’s national team.

Set to start working at the VNL 2024, Morales, a former setter with the Puerto Rican national team, understands Korea are in a different era after the international retirement of superstar Kim Yeon-Koung and he believes that steady and consistent work is the only way to make the Asians return to the place they occupied not long ago in the international scene.

A few weeks before he officially starts his work with the team, Morales took the time to chat with Volleyball World in an exclusive interview.

Volleyball World: What motivated you to leave your country’s national team after three successful seasons and take on Korea? What kind of challenges do you expect walking into such a different culture, both on and off the court?

Morales: It was really hard to leave the Puerto Rico national team, definitely the hardest part about this decision. But I think this is a great opportunity for my coaching career that might lead to other opportunities. There are a lot of challenges, first the language and then the culture. But it is something I am used to as I played 14 seasons overseas in seven different countries, so I think I am ready for this challenge.

VW: What do you take from your experience with Puerto Rico, which was your first with a national team? Any lessons you learned that you think will help you going forward?

Morales: A lot of very positive things. First, having this first national team experience will help me a lot in the rest of my career. And being able to do it in my home country made it easy for me. The experience of big tournaments like World Championships and Olympic Qualifiers will help me when I go in these big scenarios with the Korean national team. I am very grateful to the Puerto Rican Federation and its president for the opportunity and support in this decision.

VW: You are now the first Puerto Rican to coach another country’s national team. How do you plan on making the most of this opportunity and hopefully open the doors of international volleyball to your compatriots?

Morales: It is an honor to be the first coach from Puerto Rico on another national team. But I know there are a lot of good coaches in the country that will follow me. I am happy I can be opening doors for other coaches and again I am sure I will see others very soon in other countries. It is not by coincidence that such a small country is always fighting against the top teams in the world.

VW: Korea have had difficult years following their semifinal appearance at the Tokyo Olympics three years ago. Looking from the outside, what have you already identified as some of the difficulties the team has been facing and what will be your approach to handle them?

Morales: I think Korean players are similar to Puerto Rican players in a lot of ways - undersized for the international game but very good in floor skills and ball control. It is a matter of creating systems that bring out our strengths and hide our weaknesses. I will also watch how in the past they were able to compete at the highest level and try to use that to our advantage at the same time. It will be a mid-term plan, we know going in that we are behind but with hard work and time, we can cover lost ground and bring the team back to where it was.

VW: Asian teams have a very peculiar playing style, built on strong defense and a fast-paced offense. How do your coaching style and your vision of the game align with that? At the same time, how do you mix that background the team has with your own thoughts and style in a way that makes them play at a high level? Do you think the path going forward is more like returning to the Korean roots or advancing in this process of adding elements of other volleyball schools to it, which your predecessors initiated?

Morales: Strong defense and fast offense are what we did in Puerto Rico last summer and we were successful. Adding that to what has worked in the past with the Korean national team can increase the level of play. I think we have to mix a little of what Korea has done in the past and what we bring with what we did in Puerto Rico, and adapt what is trending in the international game. Having an open mind to making adjustments in the run will be crucial as well.

VW: What are your thoughts about the players you will have available for the Korean national team now? Do you think it will be possible to turn things around with the current group or are you looking at rejuvenating or maybe revamping the squad in the long term?

Morales: As I mentioned before, this will be a mid-term plan. Knowing that most of the national team right now are 26 years old or younger and looking to add more young players from the U23, U21 and U19 national teams is part of the plan. I think there is a lot of talent and they play a lot of volleyball all year round. It will be a matter of getting organized and working hard towards our goals.

VW: Korea’s recent decline unsurprisingly coincided with the international retirement of the legendary Kim Yeon-Koung, who’s a generational talent in international volleyball. You went through somewhat of a similar situation with Puerto Rico as, when you took over the team, Aurea Cruz was stepping away. What do you think is the best way for a national team to cope with the departure of figures of that caliber? Do you plan on having Kim as part of your staff or involved with the team in some capacity?

Morales: It is normal that when you have the player that at one point was the best in the world retire, the level of the national team would go down. She did so many things for the team that it is normal for this to happen. Our plan is to create systems and develop players to have a balanced squad and at the same time try to develop or find another generational talent like her. It would be an honor to have Kim help in any way she would like. I can't wait to get to Korea to hopefully meet her and see if she wants to be involved in any capacity she wants to be. Having that figure around the young players will give them a lot of confidence and will raise our level.

VW: What are Korea’s long-term goals? What kind of progress would you like to see in the next few years and what do you see as the first steps in that process?

Morales: The long-term goals are having a good 2026 World Championship and being in the best possible spot to qualify for the 2028 Olympics. We are a long way from that, but again, with hard work and time it is possible. This first year is going to be crucial and having only one competition will give us more time to implement a lot of things we want to implement.

VW: Thinking more on the short-term, what do you have in mind for 2024? What kind of answers are you looking to get from the team’s participation in the VNL?

Morales: We just need to be better every day. We know last two years haven't been good. We want to go to the gym starting April 15 and be better every day. That is our goal for 2024. Of course, if we can start getting some wins in the VNL it would be great and I know we are going to be in position to get them. But getting better is the goal for this first year. Also gaining the trust of the team will be very important to create a good relationship for years to come.