A tough decision for the good of the country

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A tough decision for the good of the country

While the Taegeuk Warriors play a crucial qualifier tonight against Kuwait, hoping to move one step closer to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, the Under-23 team has already clinched its spot in the 2012 Olympics.

The team earned the ticket to London by beating Oman 3-0 on Feb. 22 and will make its seventh consecutive and ninth overall appearance at the Summer Games.

But within a day of becoming one of the 16 participants in the Olympics, some local fans and media began speculating about which players would be included in the final squad, including discussions about “wild card” selections.

Teams competing in the Olympics are comprised of players under 23 years of age, but each qualified team is allowed to select three players who are over the age limit, known as wild cards.

Many top footballers were mentioned as possible candidates, such as winger Lee Chung-yong of Bolton Wanderers and national team goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong, but so far, the most mentioned player is 26-year-old striker Park Chu-young.

Park is an attractive option for the team’s attack, even though he is struggling to get time on the pitch with Arsenal. The former Korean national team captain was picked as a wild card for the U-23 team competing in the 2010 Asian Games.

The London Olympics may be the last opportunity for Park to earn exemption from mandatory military service. If male athletes win an Olympic medal, Korea waives their two-year military obligation after completing four weeks of basic military training.

But Olympic team coach Hong Myung-bo has been offended by all of these recent discussions and speculations. On Thursday upon his arrival in Korea, Hong said: “It’s not courteous to talk about the wild cards at this moment after what our players have been through in Oman.”

I agree with what Hong said. There are still four months until the Olympics and we don’t know what will happen before the Olympic cauldron is lit in London. Some important players may suffer from injuries or underperform during league play.

But on the other hand, Hong should not completely ignore the wild card dilemma. The quality of play Korea will face in the Olympics is higher than the teams faced during the Asian qualifiers, and the easiest way to boost the team’s performance is utilize experienced and skilled wild card players.

Hong has previously hinted that he wants to carry on with the current squad, saying newcomers might disrupt team chemistry. But while it is disappointing that some existing members can’t be compensated for their efforts in the qualifiers, this is an inevitable reality.

Unlike the FIFA World Cup, in which a 23-man squad is required for tournament entry, only 18 players will be able to play in London, meaning four or five members must be cut.

There is also the issue of calling up players under 23 years of age who currently play for European teams and were thus unable to participate in the qualifiers. That includes Ki Sung-yueng (Celtic), Koo Ja-cheol (Ausburg), Ji Dong-won (Sunderland) and Son Heung-min (Hamburg).

These players weren’t able to play in the Olympic qualifiers because unlike World Cup qualifiers, the clubs are not obligated to release their players. But these players are surely eager to represent their country on the Olympic stage and compete for the nation’s first medal in football.

It will all come down to the coach’s decision. The wild card selections are not prestigious rights. They can be used as a cure, but at the same time can be a poison. Hong must take deep consideration for the pending decision.

The young Taegeuk Warriors have fought hard and overcome obstacles, but it is inevitable that some of these players will be sacrificed for the good of the team. I hope Hong does what is best for this country .

By Joo Kyung-don [kjoo@joongang.co.kr]

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