Thursday, June 12, 2014

Korea at the 2014 World Cup: The Awkward Adolescent Years?

See that gangly and moody kid leaning against his locker? The one who seems promising but is inconsistent, lacking in focus, and temperamental? The one who is, at times, good enough so that he gets away with being cocky, but usually looks like he could use a good ass-kicking?

Say hello to Korea's 2014 World Cup team in all its awkward adolescent glory. Not only is this the youngest team that Korea has ever sent to the tournament, but for the first time since 2002, none of the Guus Hiddink Era veterans will be on the team as players.

Those who've followed Korea national football over the past couple of years should be well aware of how volatile it has been. The Olympic bronze triumph in 2012 was Korea's greatest national footballing achievement since finishing in 4th place in the 2002 World Cup. Furthermore, it was my favourite sporting memory of all time, For related posts, read:

Korea beats Team GB in epic football QF shootout

Korea's football team should be exempt from military service, no matter what

The most golden bronze medal ever

To commemorate the happiest sporting memory of my life thus far

The medal seemed to be the latest milestone in the steady progress of Korean football since 2002. In 2006 Germany, Korea earned its first World Cup victory on foreign soil over Togo. It also drew with eventual runners-up France and earned 4 points in the group stages, which often is enough to see a team through to the knockout stages but unfortunately wasn't the case that time. In 2010 South Africa, Korea notched its second foreign World Cup victory, this time against a more quality opponent in Greece. It also achieved its dream of progressing to the knockout round for the first time away from home. Though the team put up a good fight, it lost to eventual 4th place finisher Uruguay.

The camaraderie, intensity, and focus of the 2012 Olympic campaign has eluded the World Cup team

But ever since that happy peak in London, Korean football has stagnated, or even regressed. Though the Olympic tournament is nowhere near as prestigious as the World Cup or Copa America, the 2012 one was still a competitive affair that featured excellent—even world-class—players like Luis Suarez, Thiago Silva, Daniel Sturridge, Neymar, Juan Mata, Ryan Giggs, Javi Martinez, Edinson Cavani, Hulk, Aaron Ramsey, Giovani Dos Santos, Oscar, and Marcelo. And amidst all this, Korea managed to finish third.

The victory was more than just a prize; it was significant because it excused all of the players from mandatory 2-year military service, an obstacle that has been a major impediment to the development of Korean football, especially for players seeking to play abroad. The idea was that without this career-killing obligation hanging over their heads, more Korean players could develop their skills overseas and help strengthen the national program.

But was the accomplishment a double-edged sword? In its aftermath, it appeared to have split the team into factions: one side consisted of the more talented Europe-based players (most of whom were part of the Olympic team), and the other side consisted of the domestic players (many of whom were left out). The previous senior team manager, Choi Kang Hee, tended to favour K-League players, the most glaring example being the divisive veteran striker Lee Dong Gook. The fractured locker room prompted public insubordination from certain players, culminating in a much talked-about incident on social media and the abrupt dismissal of Choi Kang Hee after the final WCQ match.

Such turbulence might've been weathered better had there been established leadership in the team. However, Korea is the 5th youngest team and the 4th least capped (a player is "capped" when he plays in top-level international match) team in the World Cup. Ever since 2002, the national team has relied on the veterans from the Hiddink team to be stars and leaders, from Choi Jin Cheol to Lee Young Pyo to Seol Ki Hyeon to Ahn Jung Hwan to, of course, Park Ji Sung. The 2014 World Cup will be the first time that no player from that era will be on the team.

The heroes of 2002 will all be on the sidelines and beyond this time
Furthermore, in 2002, only 2 players on the national team played in Europe. In 2006, it was 5. In 2010, it was 6. In 2014, it will be 9, most of whom are key starters. The most consistently excellent national teams tend to have players who all play in the same domestic league (e.g. Serie A and the Bundesliga), with certain teams like Juventus and Bayern Munich effectively becoming the national teams themselves. Historically, most (if not all) of Korea's national players came from the K-League. Maybe a few from the J-League. Occasionally, there may have been one or two hotshots who had been picked up by European teams to decorate their bench. But the team was built around a core of domestic players. This did not guarantee success, as evidenced by the fact that Korea did not win a World Cup match until 2002. And I am certain that there was factionalism in the past as well.

But expectations are and should be different now as unlike with prior Korea teams, this squad has a load of individual talent that has done rather well abroad against elite competition. Ki Sung Yueng is one of the best passers in the Premier League and he played a pivotal role in saving Sunderland from relegation. Koo Ja Cheol and Ji Dong Won also helped save Augsburg from relegation in the Bundesliga with their offensive prowess. Son Heung Min has been very good in Germany for the past couple of years and is poised to break out as a true star soon. Lee Chung Yong was one of the better wingers in the Premier League before a devastating injury sidelined his career; he has mostly regained his pre-injury form but unfortunately and unfairly remains mired in the Championship League). Hong Jeong Ho hasn't played much in Germany, but he is young and actually has a realistic chance at becoming a rare sight: a regular starting Korean defender in a top European league. His compatriot Kim Young Kwon may join him one day soon too.

Yet this team generally plays below its overall talent level, the 2012 Olympics notwithstanding. The World Cup Qualifiers (WCQ) were a near-disaster, resulting in the unceremonious firing of two managers within 3 years: Cho Kwang Rae and Choi Kang Hee. Had Uzbekistan scored one more goal in its final WCQ match, Korea would've missed the World Cup for the first time since the Soviet Union became Russia.

Korean's legendary libero and architect of the Olympic bronze triumph, Hong Myung Bo, was brought in to right the ship. But there is only so much a national manager can do in so short a time after a period of upheaval. Consequently, the team's record since the managerial switch has been mediocre-to-troubling. The last few prep friendlies leading up to the World Cup have not gone well at all. But if there's anybody with the charisma and reservoir of goodwill to help guide Korea through uncertain times, it's Hong Myung Bo.

Hong Myung Bo has been put in a very difficult position against his initial wishes, so he should be afforded
great leeway in putting his mark on the team and system

The astute website Zonal Marking hit the mark when it proclaimed that a new golden generation of Korean football is likely at hand, but it will not dawn until a few years later from now. The team is too young, and it's not blindingly talented enough to make up for that with raw ability.

I hope the team does well in Brazil, but I'm not as desperately invested as I used to be. I saw the team achieve its longed-for goal of making it past the group stages on foreign soil in 2010, and I saw them win the coveted bronze medal in 2012. Furthermore, with the success of people like Ryu Hyun Jin, Jeremy Lin, and Masahiro Tanaka, I'm not as personally thrilled anymore by the achievements of Asian athletes. And that's a good thing.

Korea has some excellent young players being cultivated by Barcelona's youth system. My biggest hope is that no matter what happens in Brazil, Hong Myung Bo will be afforded the time and patience to put his mark on the national system because we saw what he could do 2 years ago in London. More than anything else, the failure of the Korean Football Association to decide on and stick to the right course of action after the successful 2010 World Cup has derailed the trajectory of Korean football. As a comparison, just look at Japan. This was a team that was thought to be DOA at the 2010 World Cup. But they somehow found themselves in time, had a great run, and afterwards, the national association hired the right manager with the right vision. Now, Japan is a highly respected team and on the verge of perhaps becoming world-class. There's no reason to think that Korea can't do the same.

So unlike with 2010 South Africa, I won't dread having to spend the rest of the summer in despair if Korea fails to make it to the knockout stage. I've seen them succeed, and I know that the team has the talent (both in the present and future) as well as the managerial leadership to truly turn heads soon.

Just maybe not this time around. We can all sit back and enjoy the ride, though.

Do Koreans dare dream that Lee Seung Woo really is the Korean Messi as the European scouts say?

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