Aashish Gadhvi assesses Korea’s chances of success in Brazil
The summer is here, the birds are chirping and it feels like an age since we went red with support for our favourite team south of the DMZ! It can only mean it’s World Cup time again! Brazil will this summer host another carnival of the beautiful game as the world’s top players battle it out to compete for the grandest prize in all of sport. South Korea have qualified for the eighth time in a row, a record bettered only by international powerhouses Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina and Spain. Those five teams have lifted the trophy 15 times between them. Korea have only ever advanced past the group stage twice. While it’s extremely unfair to compare these figures due to the quality and history of football in the region, two advancements out of the group stage is pretty poor for a team who can now be considered World Cup regulars. No doubt for this year the target, as it was in 2010, will be to reach the last 16.
In 2010 South Korea qualified for the last 16 after some swashbuckling football which saw their gung-ho style of play scrap and scrape them past the group stage for the first time on foreign soil. However that was four years ago and sadly time has not been kind to the Korean team. They go into this tournament in poor form having scraped their way to qualification on goal difference after a loss to Iran in their final game. The problems didn’t stop there as Korea racked up big defeats against the likes of Croatia and Mexico and failing to beat their regional rivals Australia, China and Japan last year’s East Asian Cup.
The current manager is the legendary Hong Myung-bo, who captained South Korea to 4th place in the 2002 World Cup. But Hong’s legend status didn’t seem to motivate the team as they remained stagnant in their style of play. The team itself which Hong has selected for the World Cup is riddled with problems. Goals have been hard to come by and the selection of Park Chu-young in the team was a shocking one considering he has barely featured for Arsenal or Watford who he was subsequently loaned out to. But the sad reality is that there isn’t much depth in great strikers for Korea and we’ll just have to wait and see if Park Chu-young gets the go ahead in Brazil. Big question marks still exist over the defence which seems to be a never ending problem for Korea. Some of the big name players from Europe such as Ki Sung-yueng, Lee Chung-yong and Yun Suk-young have had indifferent seasons which is worrying for Korean considering these players are their biggest strength. Adding to the bad news will be the noisy neighbours in Japan who are playing some incredible football as of late and most experts agree that Japan will advance to the second round. Should Japan advance and Korea don’t, it will sting all the more for die hard Korean fans.
This all sounds very doom and gloom, and truth be told the situation isn’t great. But are there things to be hopeful about? Simply put, yes. Korea haven’t been playing great for sure, but the World Cup has traditionally been where Korea bring their A game. Leading up to the 2010 World Cup the team wasn’t playing great either and despite that the team advanced to the second round. Despite the defence having frailties, Hong Jeong-ho and Kim Young-gwon have had good seasons at their respective clubs, as have midfielders Koo Ja-cheol and Kim Bo-kyung.
However where the strength lies for Korea is in 21 year old star striker Son Heung-min who has played some fantastic football at Bayer Leverkuson in Germany’s Bundesliga. All the pressure can’t be put on his young shoulders and the experienced guard in Ki and Lee need to step up and support him. Manager Hong Myung-bo would also do well to ignore Park Chu-young’s status and select the towering striker Kim Shin-wook who has been playing well for his club and causes defences all sorts of problems with his size and strength. This is something which Korea have never had before and is a luxury they should exploit. Kim and Son would be an interesting partnership playing off each other, and if the midfield generals can get their game together, the attack suddenly seems a well-rounded package.
Korea have been drawn in Group H alongside Belgium, Russia and Algeria. None of these games are going to be easy. The Russians beat Korea in a friendly last year and Belgium are a resurgent dangerous team with huge stars like Vincent Company and Eden Hazard. Getting points from those games will be mighty difficult. Korea traditionally play well against African teams and will fancy themselves against Algeria but again it depends which Korea turns up to the match as Korea on poor form can be beaten by pretty much anyone at the World Cup. If Korea were to advance out of the group stage with this team, dare I say it would actually be a bigger achievement than the 2010 World Cup. But doing this is going to take an almighty task, and it depends how much Hong Myung-bo can lift the players to compete at the level they’ll need to. But one thing will be for sure, the red flags will be flying for them throughout the summer. Get your red colours and drums together folks, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!