Another Test for Hiddink As National Soccer Team Plays in the Dubai Cup

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Another Test for Hiddink As National Soccer Team Plays in the Dubai Cup

After the Netherlands destroyed Korea 5-0 in the 1998 World Cup soccer finals in France, Guus Hiddink, then coach of the Dutch squad, knew exactly what was wrong with the Korean national team: lack of tactical expertise.

As coach of the Korean team three years later, Hiddink, 54, has made improved tactics the cornerstone of his plan to develop Korean soccer. His strategy will receive its second major test starting Thursday at the Dubai Four-Nations Cup in the United Arab Emirates.

The high-profile coach is hoping to prove the effectiveness of his emphasis on more tactical and physical training and the attack-oriented four-back formation (4-4-2) in his drive to get Korea to the second round in next year's World Cup.

In the Carlsberg Cup last month, Hiddink led his team to a third-place finish after losing to Norway 3-2 and beating Paraguay 6-5 in penalties after a 1-1 score in regulation.

Though their new coach has an unspectacular 1-1-1 record so far, South Korea still has high hopes for Hiddink and is expecting bigger and better things in Dubai. The team plays Morocco on Thursday, then takes on host UAE on Sunday and Denmark on Wednesday.

Several Korean stars will miss all or several games due to commitments to their foreign clubs. Perennial goal-scoring threats Choi Yong-soo (JEF United Ichihara of Japan) and Lee Dong-gook (Werder Bremen of Germany) will not play. Ahn Jung-hwan (Perugia of Italy) will miss two games and Seol Gi-hyeon (Royal Antwerp of Belgium) one.

The absence of the stars could provide an opportunity for younger players to step up and show their stuff. Juggling different lineups, Hiddink may alternate strikers Yoo Sang-chul and Park Sang-bae at right wing, Choi's usual position, while putting midfielder Ko Jong-so at the left spot.

More important, the tournament may help determine who will form the team's starting 11 for the Confederation Cup in Seoul in May. Thus players are expected to work hard in an effort to impress their coach.

In particular, Hiddink is expected to closely watch Ahn and Seol, two of the three Koreans currently playing in Europe, to look for any improvement in their game. And goalkeeper Kim Byung-ji is feeling the heat after getting benched in favor of Kim Yong-dae in Korea's overtime victory over Paraguay in the Carlsberg Cup.

Currently tied at 41st in the FIFA world rankings with Israel, South Korea was the runner-up in the Dubai tournament last year. Denmark is ranked 23d, Morocco 28th and the UAE 64th.

Against the three teams, Korea has had the most success against the UAE, going 5-2 with three ties. Korea played Morocco to a 2-2 tie in the 1996 tournament, when Korea finished third, but is winless in four tries against Denmark.

Korea is striving to keep pace with, if not outdo, its 2002 World Cup co-host Japan ahead of the grand event next year.

Japan, which has traditionally lagged behind Korea in soccer, has seen substantial improvement under its French coach, Philippe Troussier. Though the two teams played to a 1-1 draw in Hiddink's debut as coach last year, Japan claimed the Asian Cup last October and is currently one notch higher than Korea in the FIFA world rankings at 40th.

The memory of Korea's awful showing in France '98 is also still fresh in the nation's mind.

To avoid a similar embarrassment and the unenviable distinction of being the first World Cup host not to qualify for the second round, the Korea Football Association hired Hiddink in December for a reported $1 million a year with a $1.5 million signing bonus.

As an added incentive, Hiddink will receive an unspecified bonus from the Korea Football Association should Korea advance to the World Cup's sweet 16.

by D. Peter Kim

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