Korea Republic Camp Focus – So far so good in South Africa

It was all smiles in Port Elizabeth after Korea Republic, placed 47th in the current FIFA World Rankings, turned in a magnificent performance against 13th-placed Greece in their opening World Cup game. It was the first victory of the finals and turned out to be a comfortable affair for the Koreans, with goals from Lee Jung-Soo and captain Park Ji-Sung. The Taeguk Warriorscan now train and prepare for their upcoming fixtures in the knowledge that they spearhead Group B after one round of games, topping the table on goal-difference.

The memory of the game may be somewhat overshadowed by the 10 995 empty seats in the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. The reason for so many missing fans is something currently being investigated by authorities from FIFA, with a suspicion of local transport and distribution systems causing the shortfall in a venue that can hold a maximum of 42 486. From a purely football point of view, however, the South Koreans will be happy with their opening display. It was only their second World Cup finals victory, and their first under a home Coach, Huh Jung-Moo. Huh attributed his side’s success to their thorough and meticulous preparation for the game, highlighting in particular Greece’s reputation for using set-pieces to their advantage. Much work was done on the training pitch to ensure that they could deal with Greece’s strengths.

Korea Republic were in determined mood, moving the ball quickly and with a purpose, and in doing so added an extra level to the fan base they accumulated in the World Cup of 2002, which they co-hosted with Japan. They out-shot their opponents 18 to six and were well worth their victory. Scoring first was essential as Greece’s capability of taking the lead then killing off games has become a feature of their play under Head Coach Otto Rehhagel. The camp will recognise, however, that there is still room for improvement, mainly in front of goal. Huh himself admitted his team has some “rough edges” and, had they been calmer and more clinical, they could have added to the scoreline. How they alter their attacking options will depend on the fitness of veteran striker Lee Dong-Gook, who did not feature against the Greeks because of a thigh injury.

Korea’s next game will see them travel 1000 kilometres to Johannesburg to take on group favourites Argentina, who were equally impressive in their 1-0 victory over Nigeria. More work will be done on the training ground to prepare for a test that will be completely different from the one they faced against Greece. One would assume that Huh will have identified Maradona’s questionable decision to play winger Jonas Gutierrez at right full-back, although one would suspect that more focus will be on containing the attacking options of the Argentines. There is now arguably less pressure on Park and his teammates to beat Javier Mascherano and company next Thursday, given such a good first-round result. Less pressure can often bring a certain freedom to a team’s play so we may expect to see an open game. The growing confidence of the Taeguk Warriors is evident with Huh, who played against Maradona in the World Cupfinals in 1986, insisting that although Argentina are among the favourites to lift the title, in football lesser teams can often prevail against stronger opponents and his side will therefore give it their “best shot”. Captain Park echoed such comments and believes if they play in the same manner they can get a result against Argentina.

The confidence and optimism towards their upcoming match is commendable, however one would feel that Korea Republic’s World Cup 2010 destiny lies in the final group game against Nigeria, and, realistically, a second-placed Group B finish. Huh, nicknamed the ‘Jindo dog’ in his homeland because of his loyalty, will use all his preparation skills to cover his bases for any eventuality. Indeed the Coach’s approach to the World Cup has been well-received in South Korea. There were fears about his appointment undoing the good, progressive work that was instilled under Dutchman, Guus Hiddink. Many believed that Huh and other native Korean Coaches’ reputations for pragmatic, conservative football would stifle his players’ flair and natural ability, and that he would insist on playing the old guard ahead of the exciting youngsters that the nation possesses. This, however, has been quickly dispelled and the Coach has mixed good attacking play with the organisation needed to compete. In fact two of his starting midfield players against Greece were 21 years old.

Just as these finals may shape Huh Jung-Moo’s career, they may also be the beginning of a great future in South Korean football.

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