As World Cup draws closer, alarm bells are going offWe all watched our beloved national soccer squad squeak by the Maldives on Wednesday. The final score, 2-0, is too flattering. This was a test Korea just barely passed. No, let me correct that: They failed miserably.
At the end of the day, staying alive in the qualification for the 2006 World Cup was all that mattered, and that Korea did. But they did it at the very last minute, facing a team they should have scored at least two or three more goals against.
It was like watching a half-court basketball game. Our players attacked the Maldives goal for the entire game, but it was not until well into the second half that there was anything to show for it. More than a dozen corner kicks were wasted.
Korea knew the Maldives game plan coming in: a stacked defense, with a sole striker positioned up front for the occasional counterattack. Our team had practiced for such a game. Yet Korea failed to execute in convincing fashion. What we did to the Maldives, anyone can do.
I mean no disrespect to the Maldives, but if you believe even half of what the football analysts were saying before the starting whistle, this match should have been an opportunity for Korea to try some experiments in offense. Instead, there was an overall lack of creativity; even the set pieces were predictable. It’s a miracle we scored at all. It didn’t take the Maldives long to figure out the Korean attack. And once they did, it was relatively easy for them to hold us at bay.
Let’s take a look at who Korea faces in the next round: Bahrain, Kuwait, Iran, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and Japan. These countries are fighting for the four spaces allocated to the Asian Football Confederation at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. (The fifth-place team can get to the World Cup through the back door, by winning a two-leg playoff against a team from North or Central America).
Among those names, there is not one easy opponent. Forget the FIFA rankings. Forget what Korea has done in the past. This will be no picnic. If we are to survive, we need to bring our A game. Otherwise we’ll be watching the World Cup without our team to cheer on.
I don’t want to make comparisons, because that isn’t fair to Jo Bonfrere. But one thing Guus Hiddink did right was to schedule friendlies against real soccer powerhouses. That’s exactly what Korea needs: to play against the best so that we can develop a game plan worthy of the heavyweights at next year’s World Cup. Provided we make it.
Korea’s World Cup qualifying campaign has been filled with matches against countries we are “supposed to beat.” That’s not how to raise the standards of the national team. The generational change that the Korean team is in the midst of should not be an excuse to limit the competition to the mediocre. How new players respond to the best is the yardstick we need to use.
Now the national side has some breathing room until the final qualifying round begins in February. Bonfrere should not be afraid to tinker with the lineup and take out anyone ― and I mean anyone ― who is not running at the top of his lungs. Whether or not the player is based abroad should be a non-factor in deciding who sits on the bench.
by Brian Lee