Qatar draw brings up ghosts of World Cups past
Korea landed in Group H in the draw for the 2022 Qatar World Cup last week, leaving the Taeguk Warriors with some serious competition in the form of Portugal, Uruguay and Ghana.
That Korea faces a tough lineup at the World Cup doesn't come as a huge surprise — at world No. 29, Korea were always going to be pitted against two stronger teams — but world No. 8 Portugal and No. 13 Uruguay do pose an especially difficult challenge, while the scrappy world No. 60 Ghana shouldn't be underestimated.
The draw against Portugal is the most interesting. The two teams have World Cup history, both competing in Group D at the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup, where Korea beat Portugal in the final game of the group stage to knock them out of the competition.
Korean national football team head coach Paulo Bento, who will manage Korea in Qatar, was part of that losing Portuguese squad at the 2002 World Cup.
Korea beat Portugal 1-0 at Incheon Munhak Stadium in Incheon to end the European side's World Cup dreams on July 14, 2002, with a young Park Ji-sung scoring the winner in the 70th minute.
Bento, a defensive midfielder, was tasked with the job of marking Park, an up-and-coming star who would go on to join Manchester United three years later. Park scored, and Bento never played a game for Portugal again.
After retiring in 2004, Bento went on to coach the Portuguese national football team from 2010 to 2014, leading his home country through the 2012 Euros and the 2014 Brazil World Cup.
This time around, Bento will be hoping for a repeat of that 2002 match — although this time he'll be standing outside the other dugout.
Statically, Korea has a better chance of beating Portugal this year than they did in 2002. Korea entered the Korea-Japan World Cup ranked at No. 40 in the world to Portugal's No. 5, a dramatically worse draw than No. 29 to No. 8. Of course, the Taeguk Warriors had the home field advantage on their side in 2002, but both teams are likely to be equally out of their depth in the Doha sun this year.
Speaking after the draw, Bento made it clear he doesn't have a problem facing Portugal.
"It shouldn't be personal," Bento said. "There is no doubt that we will do well against Portugal. My feelings won't get in the way. I manage Korea and Portugal is my home country. I've never experienced this before and I'll have to be ready for it.
Korea and Uruguay also have World Cup history, although a lot less recently. The two countries were both drawn in Group E at the 1990 Italy World Cup, alongside Belgium and Spain. Korea lost all three of its group stage games at that World Cup, although the 1-0 loss to Uruguay was its closest result of the tournament.
Despite Ghana's lower ranking, it has never been a pushover for Korea. According to KFA numbers, the two countries have faced each other six times, with each side winning three games. The most recent game was a 2014 friendly that Ghana won 4-0.
Group H may offer some stiff competition, but the draw could have gone worse for Korea. With the exception of the easy Group A — Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal and Netherlands — every other group contains a higher-ranked team than Portugal. Group E, with Spain and Germany, Group D, with France and the Netherlands, and Group C, with Argentina and Mexico, offering a particularly difficult challenge.
Perennial favorites Brazil landed in Group G, with world No. 2 Belgium in Group F. England, who finished second at the 2020 Euros last year and are seen as another possible contender, is in Group B.
The 2022 Qatar World Cup will kick off on Nov. 21 in Doha, with Korea's first game against Uruguay on Nov. 24. Korea will then face Ghana on Nov. 28, before once again rounding out the group stage with a game against Portugal on Dec. 2.
BY JIM BULLEY [firstname.lastname@example.org]