Korea and the World Cup: Do miracles come in pairs?When South Korea first won the right to go to the World Cup in 1954, winning a game was not a priority. To score a single goal was, but that didn't happen. But more than half a century later, the country's expectations have grown exponentially thanks to a memorable performance at the 2002 World Cup. Four years ago, the national squad finished in fourth place after beating soccer powerhouses like Portugal, Italy and Spain.
With less than two months to go before this year’s competition, South Korea is gearing up for this year's World Cup in Germany. Dick Advocaat, who took over the team’s reins in October, has given hope to the country. The squad's abysmal performance under Advocaat's predecessor Jo Bonfrere, another Dutchman, has become just a fading memory. Advocaat, using his strong personality, has been able to put some character into a team that looked like a patient on life support in some of its earlier outings. He is known in soccer circles as someone who believes in giving opportunities to lesser known but hard-working younger players. Thus, soccer analysts say that the competition he instigated within the team has much to do with its transformation.
During a 41-day overseas training trip earlier this year, the team posted six wins, one draw and three losses while showing glimpses of its glory days when it seemed tireless and pressured opponents aggressively in the midfield. It also played an economic style of soccer by scoring on just a few opportunities that it created.
While there is no telling - but lots of hoping - how the team will fare in this year's World Cup, skipper Advocaat is certainly a man filled with a “believe in yourself” attitude. On April 26, the coach went so far to say that South Korea would surprise the world again.
He said in justification that six or seven of his players (the final roster has not yet been set) will have experienced the World Cup, and those players are now playing in the creme of Europe's professional soccer leagues. His own assessment, he admitted, was that as individuals, South Korean players may not be on par with other world-class players, but as a whole team the squad was very strong. The coach is expected to announce the final list of the team on May 11, and said that unlike other countries that start to call up their national players on May 21, South Korea would start its final preparations earlier than that.
Advocaat has pointed out as the team's strong point something agreed with by many soccer experts. "There is a big difference in having the World Cup experience. Plus, the players who have that experience have built on it by playing abroad," said Lee Yong-su, a soccer analyst for KBS. "They have raised their game level since then."
The team has not been able to get the kind of support, however, that it got in 2002 in preparing for Cup play. Then, domestic professional soccer teams released their players selected for the national squad months before the World Cup started so that the team could gel. "That was unprecedented. It won't happen again," said Kim Ho, a former coach of Suwon Samsung.
Another factor not to discount at this year's World Cup is that the team is playing on unfamiliar ground with no home crowd to speak of to support them. Thrown together with France, Switzerland and Togo into Group G, the South Koreans will probably face hostile crowds, given the geography involved.
Advocaat has suggested to the media that he is almost done tinkering with the lineup, saying that 99 percent of the team had already been formed.
That selection was set back in early April, though, when the striker Lee Dong-gook went down with an injury. Ahn Jung-hwan of MSV Duisburg in the German Bundesliga or Seol Ki-hyeon of the English Premier Leauge's Wolverhampton Wanderers are two of the players discussed as a replacement for Lee. The Korea Football Association has said it would recommend Woo Seong-yong from the domestic K-League's Seongnam Ilhwa, while Cho Jae-jin, of the Japanese professional league's Shimizu S-Pulse and Park Chu-young who plays for FC Seoul are other candidates whose names are being mentioned to fill in the void. Advocaat said the players who went with him on the recent training trip abroad would likely make up the bulk of the team.
The final lineup of the 23 players who will go to Germany is expected to be announced on May 11. The players mentioned as candidates to fill Lee Dong-gook’s shoes as a striker will probably also be named to the squad at other position. (Korea is expected to use a single striker formation in its basic lineup.) So that leaves 18 slots to fill. The strikers Lee Chun-soo of Ulsan Hyundai, Cha Du-ri of the German Bundesliga's Eintracht Frankfurt, Chung Kyung-ho of Gwangju Sangmu. Choi Tae-wook who plays for the Pohang Steelers and also played at the last World Cup might get the nod as well.
At midfielder, Kim Nam-il of Suwon Samsung; Lee Eul-yong, who plays for Turkey's Trabzonspor; Lee Ho of Ulsan Hyundai; Kim Do-heon of Seongnam Ilhwa; and Park Ji-sung from the English Premier League's Manchester United are almost certain to be with the squad. The deep fielders of the team are likely to be Lee Young-pyo, who plays for the English Premier's League Tottenham; Choi Jin-cheul of Chonbuk Hyundai; Kim Jin-gyu of Jubilo Iwata in the Japanese professional soccer league; Kim Dong-jin of FC Seoul; and Cho Won-hee of Suwon Samsung are all likely candidates. Song Jong-gook, also of Suwon Samsung, is also a contender, but his slow recovery from a recent injury leaves a question mark.
The undisputed pick at goalie is Lee Woon-jae of Suwon Samsung, while Kim Byung-ji of FC Seoul and Kim Young-kwang of Chunnam Dragons are fighting to be the backstop in goal.
For another miracle this year, experts say, the most important thing now is probably to ease the minds of the team members during training sessions. Cha Bum-kun, the coach of Suwon Samsung, said in a newspaper essay, "Since the World Cup is being played abroad, the most important thing is the confidence of the players. Praise them constantly and raise their confidence so that their hidden potential can be realized."
Experts say Advocaat is an excellent motivator. When South Korea plays its first game of the World Cup against Togo on June 13 in Frankfurt, the country may have a chance to see just how successful he has been. But coach - no pressure, right?
by Brian Lee