Fans should give Coelho their supportIf I happen to run into Umberto Coelho any time soon, this is what I would say to him: “It’s gonna be tough to be you for awhile. Sorry.”
After dropping consecutive matches to Vietnam and Oman, the skipper of the national soccer team has to be worried about how long he will keep his job. Back-to-back losses to countries that at best qualify as soccer backwaters have shown the coach the flip side of the energy that catapulted Korea into the quarterfinals of last year’s World Cup.
When Korea lost to the once-mighty French, 5-0, in a friendly exhibition game leading up to the World Cup, fans here gave coach Guus Hiddink the Korean nickname “Oh Dae-young,” or “Five to Zero.”
But getting trounced by the likes of Les Bleus was all part of Hiddink’s master plan. He knew that beating up on second-rate teams would only boost the team’s ego; it wouldn’t make them better players. But for Koreans, who were more accustomed to thrashings like the 16-0 rout their team laid on Nepal last month, getting embarrassed by the then-defending world and European champions was no fun. They called for Hiddink’s head.
Fortunately, he didn’t quit. Perhaps more fortunate was the Korea Football Association’s willingness to stand by him. He stuck to his battle plan. While building up the players’ physical strength and stamina, he tinkered with the lineup, introducing us to players like Lee Young-pyo, Park Ji-seong and Kim Nam-il.
The old pecking order on the national team was out the window. Hiddink even told Hong Myeong-bo, long the team’s undisputed leader, that he had to earn his spot just like everyone else. The result was the kind of euphoric success Korea had never tasted before.
Coelho, who eventually stepped into Hiddink’s role, has big shoes to fill. So big, in fact, that it may be too great a burden. What happened last year was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I don’t expect to see such a performance again.
Placing fourth at the World Cup does not mean that Korea has suddenly joined the world’s soccer elite. Thorough preparation (Hiddink had a full year to train his players before the World Cup) and home field advantage were used to maximum effect. Korea is currently ranked 22d in the world by FIFA, but the FIFA rankings, at least outside of the top 10 teams, are hardly a reflection of real prowess.
We have learned that with proper training we can play with the world’s best. If things go our way, we can even win. But that can only continue if the public keeps providing the kind of support and faith that Hiddink enjoyed at the end of his reign.
Coelho is going to stumble, even against teams like Vietnam. He is, after all, juggling a constantly changing lineup of largely untested players. Hiddink, on the other hand, had at his disposal veterans geared up for one last run.
The task at hand for Coelho is preparing for the upcoming Asian Cup final. Further down the road is the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Striking a balance between achieving success at the Asian Cup and getting the next generation hungry for victory is a daunting task.
If he fails to get the job done, he will certainly be to blame. But if the fans and soccer officials fail to give him the support he needs, the blame will be partly ours.
by Brian Lee