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World Cup history

South Korea has the most extensive World Cup history of any team in Asia, qualifying for every tournament since 1986. While they failed to make it past the group stage in any of their first four tournaments, no one will ever forget their unforgettable run to the semi-finals when they co-hosted the tournament with Japan in 2002.

With more than a small dose of luck the Taeguk Warriorsknocked out both Italy and Spain before their run was halted by Germany, but the memories of that tournament still loom large, and some would say still create unrealistic expectations that have burdened every team since 2002. In the three tournaments since, the Koreans have made it out of the group stage just once, when they made the Round of 16 in South Africa.

Qualifying

South Korea’s impressive run of eight consecutive qualifications almost came to an end and hung in the balance right until the final whistle of their last qualifier against Uzbekistan in Tashkent.

The Taeguk Warriors breezed through the opening stage of qualification with an impressive eight wins from eight matches, and did it all without conceding a goal. Under the guidance of German Uli Stielike, who took them to the final of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, the first time they’d made the final since 1988, everything seemed to be going in the right direction.

That was until the final stage of qualifying, when suddenly things started to become a grind.

Coasting at 3-0 up in their opening match against China, they conceded twice in the space of three minutes, and had to endure a nervy final 15 minutes. That was followed up a few days later in Malaysia with a turgid 0-0 draw with Syria.

The first loss of their campaign came in October 2016 against arch-nemesis Iran, with Sardar Azmoun’s 25thminute strike ending their unbeaten campaign, and while they were still in an ideal spot to qualify, the verve with which they had been playing had disappeared and questions started to be asked of Stielike.

A 1-0 loss to China, their first loss against their regional rival since 2010 and just their third in their entire history, was a knock to national pride, but the 3-2 loss to Qatar in June last year was the final straw for the KFA, who swiftly axed Stielike and replaced him with their Olympic coach, Shin Tae-yong.

A pair of 0-0 draws against Iran and Uzbekistan was enough for Korea to sneak into the World Cup, but so precarious was their position that had Uzbekistan scored in their final match in Tashkent, they would’ve been relegated to third in the group and faced the daunting prospect of a playoff against Australia.

Form

A win in the regional East Asian Cup in December with a solely domestic based squad, which included a thumping 4-1 win over Japan, was a good way for Shin Tae-yong to start the build-up to the World Cup. That was followed up with a camp in Turkey in January that included wins against Moldova and Latvia, and a 2-2 draw with Jamaica.

But in the most recent international window, with a step up in opposition, they came up short with losses against Northern Ireland (1-2) and Poland (2-3).

Coach

While technically Shin Tae-yong was the one to qualify the Koreans for the World Cup given he was in charge for the final two matches against Iran and Uzbekistan, for all intents and purposes they are another Asian nation to change coach after qualifying for the World Cup.

After 2002 expectations are always high in Korea, justifiably so or not, and how Shin handles the pressure that comes with leading his nation will go a long way to determining the success this team has. Hong Myung-bo, one of Korea’s most decorated players, and someone viewed as a rising star in coaching circles, failed to handle the pressure in Brazil and his coaching career went no further.

Shin has history with big tournaments, having taken Korea to the quarter finals at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, and that experience should hold him in good stead heading into the World Cup.

Key player

It’s not unfair to say the hopes of a nation rest on the shoulders of one man – Son Heung-min (pictured). The Tottenham star, who has taken his game to another level since joining the Premier League side in 2015, will carry most of the attacking burden for the Taeguk Warriors, something he has struggled with in the past. But if the 25-year-old fires then there is a good chance that his teammates will follow. It’s a lot of pressure on the shoulders of just one man, but after three seasons in England, he seems better placed now to handle that pressure than at any time in the past.

Player to watch

This was originally going to be about Kwon Chang-hoon, the exciting Dijon attacker who has had a breakout season in France this year. But tragedy struck for Kwon in the final match of the Ligue 1 season, tearing his Achilles tendon, an injury that will sideline him for the next few months and will see him miss the World Cup. It’s a cruel blow for Kwon and Korea, but in Hwang Hee-chan they have a man ready to step in and fill the void. The 22-year-old has scored 17 goals across the last two season for Red Bull Salzburg in Austria, and while this season was a little quieter than last with only five goals compared to 12 last season, he is a player Shin Tae-yong knows and trusts from his time in charge of the Olympic team and who will now take on an even greater role in the absence of Kwon.


Categories: Analysis | Asia | World Cup

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