There is something a little bit different about this Korea
Head Coach Huh Jung-Moo has claimed many accolades since landing in South Africa, especially after the morale-boosting 2-0 win over 2004 European Champions Greece in the opening game. The success of the Korea Republic national team, however, may well be down to the work he has done off the pitch. Past Korean squads have been renowned as being run in a dictatorship-like fashion, one run along military lines where fear was used as motivation – but not this one. After the win over the Greeks, Huh ordered his players to have the day off, free from training and any form of supervision. They were free to do as they pleased. In one way it was a reward for their impressive performance, but in a way it was simply to relax his players before they took on the might of their South American opponents, and all the media attention and pressure that goes with it. Players were seen in a relaxed mood, joking and enjoying being part of South Africa’s football festival. Huh decreased the pressure on his team further by playing down his team’s chances, and referred to the clash in David and Goliath terms, ordering his team to “go out there and have fun”. Goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong was even full of jokes exclaiming menacingly that the only way to stop Lionel Messi was to break his legs.
Although Korea Republic claimed the plaudits following the opening game, and more following their spirited yet brief fight-back against Diego Maradona’s men, they are still seen as underdogs in the overall World Cup picture. There has to be very few teams that have been unbeaten in qualifying and yet written off so much in the tournament proper. Bookmakers quoted prices of 9-1 for Korea to beat Argentina, and were even 7-2 to claim a draw. Not only did people acknowledge the 40 FIFA World Ranking places that separate the two, they suggested that they were worlds apart and should not be on the same pitch together. Although it was not the fairytale ending that Huh, his players and the Korean public desired, it took all of Argentina’s firepower to finally put a brave and spirited opponent to bed. It could have all been so different had Park Chu-Young’s gilt-edged chance been converted just short of the hour mark. Had this hit the back of Sergio Romero’s net, the whole psychology of the game could have shifted and the headlines may have been about a giant-killing, rather than Gonzalo Higuain’s hat-trick. But tt was however to be. Exactly 56 years to the day, Korea Republic were beaten 9-0 on their World Cup debut by Hungary, but the performance was far cry from that humiliation.
Huh will take the positives from the performance – as he should. His team were not expected to win the game and could play without pressure. It now, however, makes their final group game against Nigeria next Tuesday in Durban a vital one. Korea find themselves in a great position to qualify to the second round and would have most certainly taken three points from two games before the campaign had started. Greece’s victory over the Africans adds an extra dimension to the final round of group games, where the mathematical and psychological conundrums come into play. Now level on three points with Greece, a victory for both Greece and South Korea would see qualification come down to goal-difference. The Greeks will have it all to do to beat Argentina who will be seeking to maintain their maximum winning record. Should Korea Republic secure a top-two finish in Group B, the Taeguk Warriors will face the contenders from Group A, which contains an impressive yet beatable Uruguay and a French side that is struggling for cohesion and unity.
Captain Park Ji-Sung and company will feel they have the quality to make a mark on this World Cup and dispel any theories of their journey to the semi-finals in 2002 being a fluke and due merely due to home advantage. With Huh at the helm, the positive attitude of the Coach may see the squad realise its ambition.