Korea going home with lots to improve on

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Korea going home with lots to improve on

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Korean players bow to fans on Thursday after they lost 1-0 to Belgium at the Arena de Sao Paulo in Brazil. [XINHUA/NEWSIS]

There was no miracle. In an attempt to pick up their first victory in the 2014 Brazil World Cup, which might have given a little hope for the Round of 16, the Taegeuk Warriors played hard against Belgium, but all they proved on the field was that there was a huge gap between Korea and world football. The team, led by Coach Hong Myung-bo, lost 1-0 to the 10-man Belgian squad in the last Group H match on Thursday, local time, ending their terrible and sad journey in the world’s biggest football event with tons of homework left to do.



Game summary

Coach Hong made some changes to his starting lineup. Instead of picking disappointing striker Park Chu-young, who only took one shot on goal in the previous two matches, Hong put 196-centimeter (6-foot-6) Kim Shin-wook on top of the offense line and also switched goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong, who allowed five goals against Algeria and Russia, with Kim Seung-gyu. Belgian Coach Marc Wilmots let his captain and defender Vincent Kompany and ace midfielder Eden Hazard rest as the team had already advanced to the Round of 16 with the six points they earned in the first two matches.

With the giant striker dominating the air and making strong headers, Korea aggressively challenged Belgium in the first half. Midfielders such as captain Koo Ja-cheol, Son Heung-min and Lee Chung-yong pressed the opponents, and Ki Sung-yueng threatened Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois with a midrange shot in the 30th minute.

After Belgium’s midfielder Steven Defour was tossed from the game for stepping on Kim Shin-wook’s foot with his studs in the 45th minute, Coach Hong replaced defensive midfielder Han Kook-young with Lee Keun-ho to hunt for a goal, but the Koreans failed to bring the game onto their side. Passes made from the side attackers were inaccurate, and players such as Koo and Lee Chun-yong let Belgium take possession of the ball through their useless dribbling.

Belgium focused on making accurate counterattacks after setting up a strong defensive wall on their side, and the strategy paid off in the 77th minute. They intercepted a pass attempted by Lee Keun-ho who was in a hurry to stage his own counterattack, and Jan Vertonghen scored the match’s only goal when goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu lamely palmed the ball struck by Divock Origi into the net.

Korea then mobilized all of its firepower to even the game with attacking midfielders Kim Bo-kyung and Ji Dong-won, but the impact was small and the match ended without a change in score. Korea finished the tournament with a record of one draw and two losses that placed the team last in Group H. They scored three goals and allowed six. It was Korea’s first winless World Cup in 16 years.

After the whistle was blown, many Korean players including Son Heung-min and defender Kim Young-gwon dropped to the field and burst into tears. Just like that, the young Taegeuk Warriors, with an average age of 25.4, saw their World Cup come to an end.



Lack of leadership

When Hong Myung-bo was appointed as national team coach last year, the nation expected great leadership from the 45-year-old, who captained the national team to fourth place in the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup and coached Korea to its first Olympic football medal by finishing third in the 2012 London Olympics.

It is harsh that Hong is being held accountable for the team’s disappointing result and performances, but the leadership he showed over the past year was questionable. His tactics have led many to express that they would rather bring in a big-name foreign coach such as Guus Hiddink, who coached Korea in the 2002 World Cup.

The biggest problem with Hong was that he stuck with some players who were obviously not in their best shape, including Park Chu-young, goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong and defender Yoon Suk-young. When Hong became coach, he announced several rules for how he would pick his 23-man squad. In particular, he said he would not call up a player who didn’t get much playing time on their club team, a rule he broke when he chose Park, who has played less than 10 matches in the past two seasons.

Hong said Park was back in his best possible shape and that he would shine in Brazil like he did in the London Olympics. But instead, Park was often isolated on the field and failed to catch up to the game’s tempo.

Before the Belgium match, Hong said there were no problems with Park. But he started Kim Shin-wook and didn’t even use Park as a substitute, seeming to have admitted to himself that his decision in the previous two matches were wrong.

It is also questionable why Hong stuck with Jung Sung-ryong as keeper because what Kim Seung-gyu showed on the field was beyond Jung’s capabilities. Kim reacted much faster whenever a shot or pass came into the goal area and was braver in dealing with opponents in the air.

Another letdown for Hong was that the opponent’s coaches walloped him tactically. In the match against Algeria, for instance, he failed to provide an immediate plan as the entire team was being embarrassed by the aggressive Desert Foxes, who scored three goals in the first half.



Future

At the tournament, there were some good moments that Koreans could hope to repeat in the 2018 Russia World Cup. The 21-year-old Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Son Heung-min obviously became the team’s offensive ace with the goal he scored against Algeria. Unlike his teammates, he showed his abilities in ball control, speed and shooting that made him tough competition against other high-level European and African players.

Korea has been heavily relying on players from European leagues from 2006 to the Brazil event, such as Park Ji-sung, Park Chu-young, Ki Sung-yueng and Lee Chung-yong, who all play in England, and Son Heung-min and Koo Ja-cheol from the German league, but the players who shined in Brazil were Kim Shin-wook, Lee Keun-ho and Kim Seung-gyu, who play in the Korean league.

This should be a sign to the national team coach to study his own league harder to find more competitive players rather than relying on European leaguers, many of whom have a difficult time even getting a chance to play at their clubs. Koreans also may see young stars such as FC Barcelona top prospect striker Lee Seung-woo in the 2018 event.

“Coaches in Korea need to spend their time fostering a decent striker instead of relying on expensive foreign players for the future of Korean football,” said Pohang Steelers Coach Hwang Sun-hong.

BY KWON SANG-SOO [sakwon80@joongang.co.kr]





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