Prophetic picks lead to win, and a new nickname

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Prophetic picks lead to win, and a new nickname

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Uli Stielike, the national football team coach, at the EAFF East Asian Cup match against China on Sunday in Wuhan, China. [NEWSIS]

After beating China 2-0 in the EAFF East Asian Cup in Wuhan, China, on Sunday, men’s national team coach Uli Stielike earned a new nickname from local football fans: “Guru Stielike.”

That’s because the new faces picked by him turned out to be the best performers on the pitch.

Forwards Kim Seung-dae and Lee Jong-ho, who scored the goals against China, made their national team debut in the match.

According to the Korea Football Association (KFA), only 30 footballers in the last 35 years have scored a goal in their first match for the national team.

But under Stielike, who took the helm last September, four players have already achieved the honor. Besides Kim and Lee, Lee Jeong-hyeop and Lee Yong-jae also notched a goal in their first game.

It might be a coincidence, but people close to Stielike say it’s because of the coach’s eye and efforts. Despite an injured knee that makes walking uncomfortable, Stielike has been traveling all over the country looking for top-quality players that have been overlooked.

“Coach Stielike injured his knee when he was a player, so it’s hard for him to walk, especially up stairs,” said Lee Jae-chul from the KFA public affairs team. “But every weekend, he goes around the country to watch football matches.”

Stielike doesn’t just check out the K-League Classic; he is also a frequent spectator at second-division K-League Classic matches, as well as college and youth club games.

“He’s driven about 14,000 kilometers (8,700 miles) in total,” said Lee Yun-gyu, who works as an interpreter for Stielike. “He moves 500 to 1,000 kilometers per month either by plane or train.”

When he visits stadiums, Stielike prefers the stands rather than VIP seats so that he can check out players in secret.

“After the Asian Cup, I heard from club officials that the coach visited the stadium about four times to see me,” said forward Lee Jeong-hyeop, who plays for second-division club Sangju Sangmu.

For the EAFF East Asian Cup, Stielike formed his youngest squad yet. The average age of the 23 players is 24.2.

In the match against China, the noteworthy performances were not limited to Kim and Lee; midfielder Kwon Chang-hoon and right back Lim Chang-woo - also making their national team debut - impressed fans.

Stielike knows how choose players wisely, but Lee said he also has a talent for managing those with less experience.

“He seems to be too calm and doesn’t shake in the face of any risk,” said Lee from the KFA. “On match days, he looks even more relaxed.”

Stielike didn’t express any objectives for the EAFF East Asian Cup, acknowledging that Korea was the underdog against China. It’s unclear whether this was sportsmanship or a calculated move to motivate his players, but in any case, it proved effective.

“He said not to think about the result, since China is one of the top contenders,” said Lee Jong-ho, who scored the second goal against China on Sunday. “So I played the match without feeling pressured.”

After beating China, Stielike admitted that Korea could have a shot at the championship. His next task is to beat archrival Japan at 7:20 p.m. tonight. JTBC, a broadcasting affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, will air the match live.

This is the first time Stielike will face Japan since taking Korea’s top coaching job. Korea leads the overall head-to-head record over Japan with 40 wins, 22 draws and 14 losses, but since 2010, the Taegeuk Warriors have collected two draws and two losses.

No coach has avoided harsh criticism from local football fans after being defeated by Japan.

“I know the historic background [between two countries],” said Stielike in an interview with JTBC. “But we should not confuse politics with sports.”

Korean football fans are out for revenge against Vahid Halilhodzic, the Japanese national team coach. The 62-year-old Bosnian coached Algeria in the FIFA World Cup last year and gave Korea a humiliating 4-2 loss in the group qualifiers.

For the upcoming match, Stielike is likely to test players who are based in Japan. Midfielders Lee Yong-jae, Jung Woo-young, Kim Min-woo, defender Kim Min-hyeok and goalkeeper Gu Sung-yun are currently playing in the J-League.

Defenders Kim Young-gwon and Jung Dong-ho as well as midfielder Jang Hyun-soo have also played for Japanese clubs in the past.

Against Japan, South Korea has been practicing crosses and headers using 196-centimeter (6-foot-4) striker Kim Shin-wook. Tomoaki Makino and Masato Morishige, two center backs for Japan, are only 182 centimeters tall. In a match against North Korea on Sunday, Japan was beaten 2-1, allowing one goal and one assist to striker Pak Hyon-il.

“We know Japanese players’ strengths and weaknesses,” said Jung Woo-young, in his fifth year in the J-League and captain of Vissel Kobe.

“We need to maximize our physical advantage to suppress Japan.”

BY PARK RIN, JOO KYUNG-DON [joo.kyungdon@joongang.co.kr]
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