(Over the next month or so, we’re going to be doing previews for all 32 teams participating in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Yes, all 32 teams. We’ll make you laugh, cry, get mad and perhaps question why you read us in the first place. We hope you enjoy the product nonetheless)
When discussing the South Korean national team, one must bring up two things: the achievements of the 2002 team that advanced to this competition’s semifinal round, and of course, the 2014 edition. The two are now inextricably linked, as the captain of Guus Hiddink’s 2002 team, Hong Myung-bo, has come home to lead this new generation of Taeguk Warriors (as South Korea’s national team are occasionally known). The task will not be easy, as Hong has only been in charge one year, and South Korea were one of the last 16 in South Africa four years ago.
Goalkeepers: Jung Sung-ryong (Suwon Bluewings), Kim Seung-gyu (Ulsan Hyundai), Lee Bum-young (Busan IPark)
Defenders: Kim Chang-soo (Kashiwa Reysol), Yun Suk-young (Queens Park Rangers), Kwak Tae-hwi (Al-Hilal), Kim Young-gwon (Guangzhou Evergrande), Hwang Seok-ho (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Lee Yong (Ulsan Hyundai), Hong Jeong-ho (Augsburg), Park Joo-ho (Mainz 05)
Midfielders: Kim Bo-kyung (Cardiff City), Ha Dae-sung (Beijing Guoan), Koo Ja-cheol (Mainz 05), Han Kook-young (Kashiwa Reysol), Park Jong-woo (Guangzhou R&F), Ki Sung-yueng (Swansea City), Lee Chung-yong (Bolton Wanderers)
Forwards: Son Heung-min (Bayer Leverkusen), Park Chu-young (Arsenal), Lee Keun-ho (Sangju Sangmu), Kim Shin-wook (Ulsan Hyundai), Ji Dong-won (Borussia Dortmund)
Manager: Hong Myung-bo
2010 refresher: South Korea placed second behind Argentina in 2010’s Group B, with a final matchday draw with Nigeria good enough for knockout-stage qualification. The Taeguk Warriors were close to forcing extra time with Uruguay in the round of 16 before Luis Suárez scored ten minutes from the end. Uruguay, as you know, eventually reached the semifinals.
Intriguing team we’ve got here, and for several reasons. It’s a young squad, it has some decent attacking options, and it has a manager who has been on the job for less than one year.
Let’s start with the youth. South Korea have only one player over 30 (defender Kwak Tae-Hwi), and 15 players aged 26 or younger–the same amount as Belgium, one of this tournament’s dark horses, have. Five South Korean players–two belonging to that 26-or-younger group–have made 50 appearances for their country.
But, you’re probably more interested in whether or not this side has some flair to its game. South Korea play a counterattacking style and are organized at the back, but there are concerns about its forwards. Park Chu-young has played in only 34 games the past three seasons (in three domestic leagues) and has only one international goal since November 2011. Lee Keun-ho has been productive at Sangju Sangmu since his transfer there last January as part of military service stipulations (it’s a long story); he hit five goals in qualifying between 2012 and 2013. Ji Dong-won has spent his past two seasons between Augsburg and Sunderland: he enjoyed a solid 2012-13 season in Germany, with five goals in 17 appearances, but only registered one tally in 12 appearances (ten as a substitute) with Augsburg in 2013-14. Dortmund recently signed him for four years.
(Talking about Ji gives me an excuse to post this, too:
In the midfield, South Korea are in possession of a sublime passer in Swansea’s Ki Sung-yueng. The 25 year-old spent this past Premier League season on loan at Sunderland, scoring three times and garnering one assist in 27 appearances. He also maintained a 90.7% success rate on better than 44 passes per contest. Ki’s abilities could be key in setting up the Taeguk Warriors’ finishers (depending on how deep he plays), as could Bolton Wanderers mid Lee Chung-yong’s. Lee registered six assists with Bolton over 45 games in the Championship, albeit on about 20 fewer passes per game and with a lower success rate (79%) on said passes.
The South Korean team found itself under new management last June; after a rocky performance in Asian Football Confederation (AFC) fourth round qualifying that only saw the Taeguk Warriors make the World Cup on goal difference, Choi Kang-hee resigned as manager, and one of the greatest Asian footballers in history was selected to take his place. Former sweeper Hong Myung-bo partook in a whopping four World Cups for the South Korean national team, and was captain when the team made its fourth-place run in 2002.
Hong runs a 4-2-3-1 ship with South Korea. Park Chu-young is likely the first-choice striker, and remember, his previous international goal came nearly three years ago, so that will be interesting (read: potentially disastrous). Midfield creativity will be key in setting up Park (or someone else), so expect Ki Sung-yueng to be pretty involved in the final third. In Hong’s counterattacking style, we’ll see two wingbacks join the play on either flank, while the two centre-backs will stay at home in front of keeper Jung Sung-ryung.
South Korea have a young team that will look to play an exciting style, but it suffers from a lack of consistent finishing, and this defence conceded more goals from set pieces during qualifying than all but one country. The opening salvo with Russia may end up proving decisive in the race for second-place. If South Korea get forward play good enough to break down a tough Russian back line, it should win–or at least produce a satisfying result. More likely, however, the South Koreans will have trouble finishing off opportunities created by its midfield, and will miss out on the round of 16 for the seventh time in nine appearances.