Getting to know…South Korea: Capable of impressive moments but lacking the consistency to make noise, it’s an uphill battle for South Korea, who barely even made it to the World Cup in the first place. Scraping through qualification, the South Koreans have yet to once again find the quality that got them to the 2002 semifinals on their home turf. With the country’s most decorated player now at the helm, the South Koreans look to shock Russia and Belgium into the knockout round. The odds are against them.
Record in qualifying: The South Koreans squeaked by on goal difference, finishing behind Iran and narrowly beating out Uzbekistan by a single goal. They almost blew it in the final wee, with a 1-0 loss to Iran, but Uzbekistan’s 5-1 win over Qatar was a goal short. It sent Uzbekistan into the playoff round, where they lost to Jordan on penalties. Jordan then got trounced by Uruguay, giving us a good barometer on where the Asian confederation stands compared to other continents like South America.
A look at Group H: South Korea has the ability to produce an upset, and one could be all they need to squeak into the knockout stage. If they can shock either Belgium or Russia and take care of business against Algeria, we could see them into the next round. They’ll need a total performance though, and qualification results don’t bode well. They dropped both matches against fellow World Cup participants Iran, and struggled to assert their dominance in matches against Uzbekistan, Qatar, Lebanon, and UAE.
June 17, 18:00, Cuitabá: Russia vs. South Korea
June 22, 15:00, Porto Alegre: South Korea vs. Algeria
June 26, 16:00, São Paulo: South Korea vs. Belgium
Star Player: Heung-Min Son
Bayer Leverkusen’s young striker is a representation of the new age of South Korean talent. Just 21 years old, he already owns 23 caps for his country and six goals, including a 96th-minute winner against Qatar in qualifying. He also scored the winning goal for Bayer in their final Bundesliga match of the season, a 2-1 victory over Werder Bremen, to give his club a 4th-place finish in the table by a single point and qualifying them for the Champions League next season.
Son is young but battle-tested, and if he can get service from his teammates, he could be at the forefront of any surprises the Koreans score. But he needs to get the ball to be dangerous, and if the team is pegged back by a stronger opponent, things could go south in a hurry.
Manager: Hong Myung-Bo
The country’s most-capped player, Hong has untold World Cup experience and is a major asset to the country’s chances in Brazil. Having played in four tournaments as a sweeper, he received the Bronze Ball in 2002, the award for the third-place finisher in the voting for the tournament’s most outstanding player.
However, he is managerially green. His job at the helm of South Korea is his first true managerial position, having previously led the country’s youth teams at the U-20 and U-23 levels and also assisting Guus Hiddink at Anzhi for just under a year before his appointment as manager. If he can push the right buttons, South Korea will have a real chance to shine in Group H. Otherwise, the former LA Galaxy player fill fade into Russia and Belgium’s shadow.
Secret Weapon: Teamwork
For a team that lacks physical strength – and in some areas, athleticism – they look to make up for it by playing together. For a squad as young as South Korea’s (nine players 24 or younger, just one player over 30), many have been together on the youth levels. Many have plied their trade on the European stage, and if Hong can get these talents to truly come together, there will be fireworks in Group H.
Prediction: The South Koreans pulled a tough draw. The Algerians are no slouches despite being serious underdogs, and between Russia’s staunch defense and Belgium’s attacking flair, it’s hard to see Korea picking up an upset in either of those games. On paper, their roster screams of young talent and a real surprise somewhere on the fixture list, but judging by their qualification matches, it’s going to get ugly in Brazil for South Korea.