Qualification is only first hurdle for Korea on road to World Cup
The Korean national football team on Tuesday secured their spot at the 2022 World Cup, but with some low-scoring results against some much lower-ranked teams throughout the qualifiers, head coach Paulo Bento and the team will need to seriously up their game if they want to have a fighting chance in Qatar in November.
Korea beat Syria 2-0 at Rashid Stadium in Dubai on Tuesday, earning a ticket to the World Cup with two qualifiers still to play. With the win, Korea have now reached every World Cup since 1986, a run of 10 consecutive tournaments.
That win against Syria followed a 1-0 victory against Lebanon last week, ensuring that Korea are guaranteed to finish in the top two in Group A of the third round of Asian qualifiers for the World Cup.
With eight of 10 games now played, Korea have 20 points with six wins and two draws, putting the team two points behind Iran in second place and an unassailable nine points above the United Arab Emirates in third. The top two teams from each group will advance to the World Cup, with the third-place teams going on to a playoff round.
But that Korea would earn a spot in the World Cup should never really have been in question. At No. 33 on the FIFA world rankings, Korea are the third-highest ranked team in Asia, behind only No. 21 Iran and No. 26 Japan. With four guaranteed spots allocated to AFC teams and host Qatar taking a fifth, Korea would have had to perform especially badly in qualifying to lose their spot.
While that did not happen, some of the results from qualifying do raise significant concerns. In the current third round of Asian qualifiers, Korea was drawn in Group A alongside Iran, the UAE, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. Aside from Iran, who are a serious threat, the UAE, at No. 68, Iraq, at No. 75, Syria, at No. 86, and Lebanon, at No. 95, should offer little challenge to the Taeguk Warriors.
Yet Korea opened the round by drawing 0-0 with Iraq in September last year, and then only managed to score a single goal in both games against Lebanon, a team ranked 62 spots lower. The first game against Syria was also disappointing — a narrow 2-1 win — with the aggregate 4-1 score still not especially impressive considering the huge gulf between the two teams.
The UAE was also a fairly disappointing 1-0 win in the first leg, although Bento's boys did follow that up a few days later with a 3-0 win over Iraq, the only scoreline in the entire round that comes close to matching the statistics.
There are some mitigating factors. Injuries of key players have been a constant issue — regular captain Son Heung-min and striker Hwang Hee-chan both missed the latest batch of games, while forward Hwang Ui-jo was out of action earlier last year. The draw may also have worked against Korea, facing five Middle Eastern teams all known for a fairly scrappy style of play that the Taeguk Warriors seemed to struggle with.
But the fact remains that Korea will enter the Qatar World Cup as one of the lower-ranked teams, facing dramatically stiffer competition than they have during qualifying. If Bento and the team are unable to put together a more impressive display than they have during qualifying then they're likely to have a very short tournament.
There was one sign of hope during the qualifiers: Korea did manage to hold Iran to a 1-1 draw in their first leg in October. That was a promising result against a higher-ranked team, and if they can repeat — or improve on — that success in the second leg in March, it could serve as a big boost going into World Cup training.
BY JIM BULLEY [firstname.lastname@example.org]