[VIEWPOINT]The unthinkable is now speakable

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[VIEWPOINT]The unthinkable is now speakable

From the moment their first game kicked off on June 4 in Busan, soccer enthusiasts around the world were put on notice: The South Korean team of this World Cup is nothing like its predecessors. Nor, for that matter, is it quite like any other team in this tournament. My, how they run.

Observers scratched their heads and wondered why, with a 2-0 lead firmly in hand, the Koreans spent the entire second half of their opening game against Poland charging up and down the pitch (mostly up) at breakneck speeds, exerting precious energy. The team was referred to dismissively as "entertaining."

And indeed, it was.

The Koreans' second game, against the United States, clarified the situation slightly. Though they had dominated from the opening whistle, the Koreans were down 1-0 early. Many teams would have let themselves be foolishly undermined by this seeming injustice (see Mexico earlier this week against the United States), but the Koreans kept trying, again and again, and eventually equalized to remain undefeated.

What we have here, some muttered, is a tenacious and determined side.

Then came the stunning win against Portugal, on a late goal that not only was unnecessary to the team's qualification hopes but also gave them the dubious honor of facing three-time world champions Italy in the eighth-finals rather than Mexico, theoretically a weaker opponent. A Korean player later told the press that, in any case, the players had decided that they would rather face the more storied opponent. And at this, the soccer world raised it collective head from the doldrums and opened its eyes wide in astonishment. This team was here to win.

Also, if by now it has not become clear, it runs like the wind, and never gives up. It is a team with genuine spirit.

It is this same spirit that one would have expected the Italians to be particularly wary of, the Squadra Azzura having seen the most recent edition of the European Nations Championship slip away on an equalizer in the waning minutes of a final that they led 1-0 ?and lost in extra time.

The Koreans matched the rigorous tactics of the Italians with their now-trademark tenacity, self-belief, and opportunism. It was reported recently, even before the historic win over the Azzuri, that coach Guus Hiddink would be offered South Korean citizenship for leading the team to the second round. Fair enough, and yet a close analysis of the team's four games thus far indicates that the offer should also be extended, if not bettered, to trainer Pim Verbeek. Indeed, the Koreans display little strategy other than a musketeerish notion of all for one and one for all.

This philosophy is known as "soccer total" and was at the core of the dashing Netherlands team of the 1970s. It demands highly skilled players, and also highly energetic ones. This Korea team has proved remarkably adept in both regards. In the end the Italy game became an endurance contest, which is why Christian Vieri, who has averaged more than a goal a game over the last two World Cups, missed what would have usually been a sure goal shortly before the end of regular time. The Koreans were simply better prepared, and for this thanks must be addressed to Pim Verbeek.

There were heroes other than Mr. Verbeek, the most obvious candidates being Ahn Jung-hwan, whose poise after missing an early penalty was astounding in a World Cup rookie, or keeper Lee Woon-jae, whose game has been consistently exceptional. But now is not the time for the Koreans to celebrate, as Mr. Hiddink will surely have told them. They have a World Cup quarterfinal to play against Spain.

The Spanish are a far different team from Italy. They will not sit on a one goal lead, nor even on a two goal lead, which is why their top three scorers, Raul and the two Fernandos, Hierro and Morientes, have eight goals among themselves (the entire Korean team has scored six). On the best of days they play spectacular, creative soccer.

Perhaps more frightening is the focus and determination that the Spanish team has displayed over the last few weeks. The Koreans themselves have shown conclusively how important such things are. The Spaniards, fearsome in club play but notorious underachievers on the international scene, seem hell-bent on adding a little World Cup star to their national jersey.

Then again, they have seemed hell-bent before.

Spain, of course, is a great European soccer power, but at this point Korea has defeated two such powers, one of which, Portugal, plays a game not dissimilar to the Spanish one. The Koreans clearly have confidence in their ability to go all the way in this tournament, which they need only three more wins to secure. As astounding as this notion might have seemed a month ago, it no longer appears entirely impossible. Not in this World Cup.


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The writer is an essayist and photographer based in New York.

by John Abt

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