[SPORTS VIEW]Back to square one for Korean soccer

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[SPORTS VIEW]Back to square one for Korean soccer

The Asian Games are over and South Korea's celebrated national soccer team, ranked 21st by FIFA, finished a disappointing third. Shocking? For some, the answer is yes. But not for me.

A fourth place at the World Cup, with half of that wonder boy squad playing on their home turf among third-rate soccer nations at best, surely told many Korean fans that anything less than a gold medal in the Asian Games would be a failure. Nevertheless, the national team's disappointing performance is not really all that surprising.

Simply, South Korea fell into its same old habits and thus slipped back into its pre-World Cup status. South Korea might be one of the better teams in Asia, but after the Asian Games, that means little to the rest of the world.

There might be many places to lay the blame, but more than anything South Korea has to stop being the school bully. South Korea has to stop its maddening practice of scheduling weak teams, beating up those teams and then feeling good about it all.

The Korean national team posted a 2-1-1 record in warm-up matches before the Asian Games. But South Korea did not play anyone of worth. South Korea beat Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. So what? The two stand at the 68th and 77th spots, respectively, in FIFA's world rankings. The South drew with North Korea, ranked 129th. Not really convincing, but the outcome can be blamed on the sunshine policy. Next came a loss to Korea's unranked national youth team. I can't explain that.

South Korea looked good as the Asian Games opened, topping the Maldives, Oman, Malaysia and Bahrain, ranked 152, 94, 121 and 103. Big deal.

Then the South fell to Iran. Why? Chiefly because Iran was ranked 34th and Korea did not have a strategy for someone ranked that high. When South Korea played Thailand for the bronze medal in the Asian Games, the South won because Thailand is only ranked 66th by FIFA.

If South Korea doesn't change its playing-with-the-boys-but-not-with-the-men strategy, the national team will never become, well, men.

Korea has to realize that its team may have played exceptionally well in the World Cup, but the fundamentals of Korean soccer have not changed much. Kids are still playing on sand pitches, while neighboring Japan plays on grass. In my opinion, Japan is the best Asian soccer nation. In contrast, without a long-term strategy, Korea's soccer future is bleak. There is no shortcut to grooming good players. It takes patience and good facilities.

I still hear comments on television such as "Now Korean soccer is up there," or, "Korean soccer is at the world-class level." Those comments are truly poison to the public.

Korean soccer is not "up there." Rather, it is where it was prior to the World Cup, maybe half a notch higher, and it's high time for a reality check. Moreover, no Korean competes in Europe's highest-rated soccer league. There were talks, but at the end of the day, it was just that. Clubs of Italy, Spain and England decided to spend their money elsewhere, and for good reason. Korean players are not rated as top-notch and this won't change until Korea changes.

Playing with the best is a good place to begin those changes.

"Sports View" appears Thursdays and Saturdays in the JoongAng Daily.

by Brian Lee

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