The Korea Republic ’s goal prior to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was to reach the last 16, and after the final group games on Tuesday, the goal was complete. A thrilling 2-2 draw with Nigeria, coupled with Argentina’s 2-0 victory over Greece saw Huh Jung-Moo’s team qualify from the group in second place, with four points from three games.
It was the first time that the Korea Republic have reached this stage of the World Cup finals outside its own territory, even after qualifying for every tournament since 1986. A reported 260,000 people watched the game unfold on giant TV screens on the streets of the capital city Seoul, undeterred by the 3.30am local kick-off time. Huh’s message to the players that the World Cup in a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” seems to have resonated with the people back home as many arrived in the streets at 3am, already dressed for school or work the following morning.
The foresight of the Korean public is matched by Huh who has based his football on his meticulous preparation for each game, even assigning his players hours and hours of “homework” in the run-up to the tournament. He revealed before the game against Nigeria in Durban that his team had up until now be preparing for the round of 16, and had been doing so for almost a year. This was not a complacent or over-confident view however. There is an in-built desire in this squad to work hard and be successful. Huh also admitted to having a different strategy for each game, displaying his utmost respect for each team that they face. Against Greece they highlighted the Greek’s organisational strengths and the danger they posed from set-piece situations. Against Argentina Huh aimed to play a containment game in an attempt to nullify the supreme Argentine attack. Prior to their third game against the Super Eagles, Huh spoke of the danger of playing for a draw (that would taken them through with Argentina beating Greece as predicted) and set up his team to balance attack and defence, which added to the resulting end-to-end contest. They have worked with the Jabulani ball, and in particular on set-pieces, with the second goal from a free-kick being of particular satisfaction. It was the first direct free-kick to be scored at this World Cup.
Although four points is not an over-convincing total, it was certainly a job well done for the Taeguk Warriors. The players however have already been warned that they are not to content themselves merely with their success thus far. Huh has re-focused attention to reaching the semi-finals, although they must first concentrate on their upcoming fixture against Uruguay. The Koreans will no doubt have another plan for the game in Port Elizabeth this weekend. The South Americans topped Group A in impressive fashion, amassing seven points in their three outings, and they have some notable firepower in front of goal. Huh pinpointed striker Luis Suaez in particular, and has recognised the strength of the South Americans and especially their capabilities on the counter-attack. Their Group was a tricky combination of France, who ultimately disappointed, and home nation South Africa, who they helped eliminate – the first side not to reach the last 16 when playing on home soil. They also beat an adept Mexico side who themselves qualified from the group.
Captain Park Ji-Sung admitted that their journey to this stage has been a difficult one and all the hard work was worth it, in particular the focus and concentration needed to come from behind and hold on to a draw in the final group game. They are as a result still “alive” in the tournament. Park went on to praise his teammates and admits that he is “proud” of their success up to this point. Huh also modestly attributes his side’s success so far to the players and coaching staff. He has also reiterated that whatever achievements the Koreans have made up to now, and whatever success they may achieve in the next number of weeks, he is still intent on stepping down after their adventure in South Africa.
Although Huh had received criticism upon his appointment, and then after his tactical decisions against the Argentines, he will now certainly retire as a hero, leaving his post-World Cup successor with big shoes to fill.