Every 4 years we go through the same process: no matter which teams Korea is drawn with, we somehow convince ourselves that it’s perfectly doable. We look at the names, and against any team that’s not the traditional powerhouse – Brazil/Germany/Italy/Spain/Argentina – we think we can get a result.
Next year, facing up against Belgium, Russia and Algeria, it’s going to be a tough, but intriguing, fight to get through to the last 16. Many people at home are looking at Belgium the name, not the squad. They have a group of players good enough to get to the semis and beyond and are overwhelming favourites to top Group H. Russia are the most interesting: any team managed by Fabio Capello cannot be underestimated, and they beat out Portugal for first place in the UEFA qualifications, but Capello’s appearance with England in South Africa 4 years ago was puzzlingly ineffectual, and unlike in previous tournaments the vast majority of Russia’s players are domestic-based, which makes it harder to ascertain how they will perform on the world stage. I’m not going to pretend to know anything about Algeria, so no words on them other than to say that it’s a game Korea has to win to have any hope of going through.
Being in the same group as Belgium evokes memories of France 1998. After a 5-0 mauling at the hands of Holland, manager and all-time legend Cha Bum-Kun was disgracefully sacked mid-tournament. A demoralised Korea went all-out to salvage some semblance of pride in their last match against Belgium, and were so intensely focused on avoiding defeat that players didn’t so much play as just threw masses of bodies in the way of Belgian shots on the 6-yard line. It was football as body-horror, and while the Korean public was placated to a certain degree at the sheer effort on display that secured a draw, something had to change. It did, in the ample shape of Guus Hiddink, and Korea’s exploits in 2002 are well-documented and much-discussed. More than a decade removed from that success, the team is dominated by very different types of players. Gone are the rugged, hard-nosed defenders like the current manager Hong Myung-Bo and Kim Tae-Young, or the no-nonsense, tough-tackling midfield enforcers such as Lee Eul-Yong and Kim Nam-Il. Today the talent is concentrated in the attacking half of midfield: Son Heung-Min of Bayer Leverkusen, Kim Bo-Kyung at Cardiff and Ki Sung-Yeung on loan at Sunderland are all perceptive, ball-playing types, and should ensure that going forward at least Korea should be able to make play fairly well. In other areas, however, there is much that will concern Hong. Korea has not had a dependable goalscorer since 2002 alumnus and current managerial favourite Hwang Sun-Hong, and both Ji Dong-Won and Park Chu-Young are mired in bad form and non-selection at their clubs. Korea will create chances, but most of them will go unfinished. In defense, there hasn’t been a talisman to step into the void left by the old guard’s retirement. Qualification for the World Cup was secured by a group of players drawn from leagues as varied as Saudi Arabia, Germany, China and Qatar, while in goal Jung Sung-Ryong is doing a Joe Hart with his wobbly displays. The defense is an area that no manager has gotten right since Hiddink left, and the recent friendlies (including a 1-2 reversal against Russia) haven’t provided any indication that things have changed for the better.
The match against Russia on 18 June will be crucial, but given Korea’s decades-long habit of playing to the level of their opponents beating Algeria shouldn’t be taken for granted. Where Korea is concerned, though, things have never been as simple as what Fifa rankings suggest. The team has always tended to outperform critical consensus, which is why I wouldn’t necessarily agree with the ‘distant third place’ predictions of western media outlets. Much to fret about, then, and much to look forward to.