Aashish Gadhvi sees history repeat itself in Qatar.
My very first article for LKL was on the 2007 Asian Cup, a tournament in which South Korea were looking to break the long drought of not winning the tournament but were knocked out in heart-breaking fashion by the eventual winners: on penalties. Well here I am four years writing about the exact same scenario. South Korea fell short at the semi final stage once again and the waiting game for the first Asian Cup victory since 1960 continues. To rub salt into the wounds, two legends have retired from international duty and the Asian Cup crown went to deadly rivals Japan who, with four titles under their belt, are the most successful country in the history of the Asian Cup. Cliché comments of football being a cruel game come to mind.
So what went wrong? Well neither Korea seemed to get it right in this tournament. North Korea were far worse than their Southern counterparts and looked a shadow of the robust team that qualified for the last World Cup. They exited at the group stage with two losses and a draw and failed to even score a goal. Although South Korea’s tournament wasn’t as bad, they did get off to an indifferent start, with a 2-1 victory against Bahrain. Although not a particularly convincing victory, which also did feature a red card for defender Kwak Tae-hwi, they got the job done. This was followed by a 1-1 draw with Australia and 4-1 victory over India, meaning that Korea finished 2nd in the group, sending them into the harder rounds to reach the final. But even at that stage of the tournament Korea looked to be playing well and youngsters such as Koo Ja-cheol and Ji Dong-wan were playing well and scoring goals.
The quarterfinal was against Iran, a team who South Korea had met six times in fourteen tournaments prior to this match. In that time Korea and Iran had both beaten each other three times and played out some classic games in the process. This one, like the 2007 encounter was goalless and required extra time to settle differences. But unlike the 2007 encounter penalties were not required as young midfield spark Yoon Bit-garam scored a great individual strike after 105 minutes. This set up a mouth watering semi-final match against arch rivals Japan, who themselves had some suspect results leading up to that match, but a 5-0 thrashing of traditional powerhouses Saudi Arabia did send alarm bells ringing that Japan this year meant business.
The match itself as expected was an epic battle and controversy rang out from the get go. South Korea were awarded a penalty in the first half and Celtic’s Ki Sung-yueng smashed it past Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima. Ki has now covered himself in controversy following his celebration as he puffed up his top lip, scratched his chin and imitated a monkey. Following this celebration some have taken it as an insult to Japan and Ki himself has said that seeing some old Japanese imperial flags before the match were in bad taste. However there have been other reasons offered for the celebration, with one being a reference to himself being called a monkey by Scottish fans while playing for Celtic. However when an event like this happens it is easy to fall for internet stories. FIFA should just look into the matter themselves if they deem it serious enough and if it is was meant in a racist way then action should be taken. Ki Sung-yueng of all players should know better, although his celebrations have always been somewhat controversial (his kangaroo bouncing celebration was seen by some as an insult to Suwon fans). Racism of any kind should never be tolerated.
After the penalty Korea seemed to have an upper edge, but Japan soon struck back with a well worked goal on the left wing for Ryoichi Maeda to tap in. From that point on Japan were largely dominant and Korea continued to dodge bullets. One questionable tactical moment was when Ji Dong-wan, a strong target striker who was playing well, was substituted for a defender and Koo Ja-cheol was sent up front by himself. This impacted Korea’s play a great deal as they defended and tried to subdue the Japanese attack. But disaster struck in extra time when Shinji Okazaki was brought down outside the box and the referee strangely pointed to the penalty spot. Finding quality referees is a massive problem for Asian football and the tournament had been littered with bad referee decisions and it was Korea’s turn to bite the bullet. Justice looked to have been served when Keisuke Honda hit a timid penalty straight at Jung Sung-ryong but Hajime Hosogai pounced on the loose ball and put Japan 2-1 ahead. Further substitutions were made and this time Korea sent on gigantic striker Kim Shin-wook who was a nightmare for the Japanese defence as he got on the end of all long balls. Seconds before the end of the match when the game appeared to be decided by the bad referee decision, Korea chanced one more long ball into the box. This time the ball ricocheted back and forth until it fell to defender Hwang Jae-won who smashed it in from close range sending the Koreans into ecstasy. Could Korea dodge the biggest bullet of all? The match went into penalties and Keisuke Honda stepped up to smash home the opening penalty and set the tone to what was an ominous shoot out for Korea. In baffling fashion Korea chose to send their younger players to take the penalties and not, as Japan had done, their experienced ones. This seemed all the stranger considering Ki Sung-yueng had scored a penalty already in the match and one would think that he would be the first player up for Korea. But sadly Koo Ja-cheol, Lee Yong-rae and defender Hong Jeong-ho who had come on as a substitute, all missed as Japan won 3-0 on penalties. Heart ache in truly dramatic style as only a fixture like this could produce.
Korea went on to claim the third place, as they did in the previous tournament, this time by beating Uzbekistan 3-2. After the tournament was said and done, Korea were once again the third best team on the continent, Ki Sung-yueng is being accused of racism and Park Ji-sung and Lee Young-pyo have retired on somewhat a down note. On a better note Ji Dong-wan and Koo Ja-cheol have shown tremendous promise and the latter player ended the tournament with the golden boot award of most goals with a return of five. Coach Cho Kwang-rae is pushing his team to play stylish quick passing football on the lines of Spain and Barcelona, which showed in the teams’ third goal against Uzbekistan and could possibly explain the hesitance to lump the ball up to a big striker against Japan despite the situation calling for it. There is a lot of work to do to get Korea passing the ball around with that much quality and even Japan passed the ball a lot better than Korea did. Until then Korea need to judge the tactics on the situation at hand and what is causing the most problems to the opposition. In that respect the management got it wrong. But this new style of play may in fact be working as in this tournament Korea played six matches and scored thirteen goals. This is equal to finalists Australia (who scored ten of those goals against India and Uzbekistan) and one less than winners Japan who all played the same number of games. What is cause for alarm is that apart from the match against Iran, Korea conceded goals in every game they played and seven goals in total. Compare this with Japan who conceded six goals (with two clean sheets) and Australia who conceded a miserly two goals (with a whopping four clean sheets) and you have the reason why Korea didn’t make the final. They even managed to concede against India, ranked over 100 places beneath them. This further proves the feeling that many fans have that since Hong Myung-bo’s retirement the defence has continued to be the biggest problem. Although these statistics don’t tell the full story of some questionable penalty decisions it still doesn’t change the fact that Korea didn’t win the tournament.
It would seem that in four years Korea hadn’t improved on their display in the tournament in which they are expected on every occasion to win. Since winning the tournament in 1960 Korea have been beaten in the final three times and on four occasions finished third. This isn’t actually that bad a return considering the achievements, but for a team who claim to be strongest on their continent it just isn’t good enough. It seems that the World Cup’s most successful Asian team are turning into chokers on their own continents competition. This will hurt all the more now that Japan have claimed a fourth title in six tournaments which is an astonishing record for a country that hadn’t played in the tournament before 1988. It was also the last chance for players of the 2002 golden generation to get their hands on this trophy. The strangest thing about this record is that Korea are a much better football team than these stats suggest. They are the most successful Asian team at the World Cup, East Asian Cup and second most successful in the Asian Games behind Iran. They even hadn’t lost to Japan since 2005. So what is it about the Asian Cup that causes them falter at key moments? Sometimes sports throw up these questions that people can’t seem to explain. Think of England and Holland in the football World Cup or South Africa at the cricket World Cup. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that South Korea are cursed to never win this tournament again, but for a nation as proud in football history as it is, not to mention to fierce competition with Japan in all walks of life, the Asian Cup looks like a hard long fight to play catch up.