Minus key players, coach remains confident S. Korea can qualify for Olympic football tournament

April 5, 2024

The team may end up without some key players, but South Korea should still be able to qualify for the Olympic men’s football tournament this month, head coach Hwang Sun-hong said Friday.

South Korea will compete in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U-23 Asian Cup, which kicks off April 15 in Qatar. The AFC event doubles as the regional qualifying tournament for this year’s Paris Olympics. The top three nations from this event will book their tickets to France, and the fourth-place team will end up in a playoff match against Guinea.

Before departing for Dubai on Friday afternoon to set up training camp, Hwang predicted a difficult tournament but said he will bear all the burden.

“The pressure should solely be on the shoulders of the coach. The players just have to concentrate on making plays on the field,” Hwang told reporters at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul. “They don’t have to worry about results. It’s important for them to play with conviction that their best effort will bring the results we want. This will be a tough competition, but my coaches and I will try to help the players enjoy the experience and have fun on the pitch.”

Hours before boarding the flight, Hwang scrambled to make a last-minute squad change after Celtic FC declined to release their South Korean forward Yang Hyun-jun. Hwang selected Incheon United winger Hong Si-hoo as Yang’s replacement.

Yang was one of five overseas-based players that Hwang called up last Friday. However, this AFC tournament isn’t part of the FIFA international match calendar, and clubs aren’t required to send their players to Qatar. And Celtic, trying to fend off Rangers for their third consecutive Scottish Premiership title, decided to keep Yang around for the stretch drive.

Hwang said other players based in foreign leagues, including Bae Jun-ho of Stoke City, are also a question mark.

“We’ll have to keep talking to their clubs. We’ll have to wait and see on those players,” Hwang said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to reach a conclusion after their matches this weekend.”

Looking on the brighter side, Hwang said it’s good for Korean football that many young players have been able to take their talent to Europe. Their absence on the national team means an opportunity for players based in the domestic K League, Hwang added.

“This will allow us to see how competitive K League players can be in international tournaments,” Hwang said. “Those guys should go out there with confidence and see this as an opportunity to prove their worth.”

After a short camp in Dubai, Hwang’s team will travel to Qatar next Wednesday.

Playing out of Group B, South Korea will open the tournament against the United Arab Emirates in Doha at 6:30 p.m. on April 16 (local time), or 12:30 a.m. on April 17 (Seoul time).

Next up will be China at 4 p.m. on April 19 in Doha, or 10 p.m. the same night in Seoul. South Korea will close out the group stage against Japan at 4 p.m. on April 22 in Al Rayyan, just west of Doha, or 10 p.m. the same evening in Seoul.

There will be four groups of four in action, and the top two teams from each group will advance to the quarterfinals.

“The goal at any tournament should be to win it all,” Hwang said. “During our training camp this week, I was able to see how driven our players are. It’ll be important for us never to lose sight of that.”

South Korea have qualified for every Olympic tournament since the under-23 age limit was put in place in 1992. They played the 1988 tournament as the host country, when it was still a senior competition.