Not much to love

January 13, 2015

South Korea advances to the knockout stage of the Asian Cup, but impresses no one. Coach Stielike says “We can’t be considered to be one of the strong contenders for the title after this game.”


John Duerden writes for the Guardian, BBC Radio 5, ESPN, World Football magazine and the Associated Press. He also contributes to the New York Times and Daily Telegraph. He can be reached at

CANBERRA — Somehow, South Korea has two wins from two and advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2015 Asian Cup. The 1-0 win over Kuwait in Canberra, Tuesday evening was, at times, painful to watch and not just only for coach Uli Stielike who at times looked like he was going to fall on his knees and start pounding the wet Canberra turf with frustration.

The football records will show that Nam Tae-hee scored the only goal of the game after 37 minutes but perhaps medical records back home in the Land of the Morning Calm will reveal just how stressful the evening was against a team that was expected to be comfortably beaten.

To be fair to the Taeguk Warriors, there were mitigating circumstances with the coach making seven changes from the team that defeated Oman three days previously.

“In last two days, we had a big, big problem with fever in the team. At the moment, I have only 14 players without problems. We have lots of problems in the game and I didn’t expect so many problems,” said Stielike.

The build-up to the game had been overshadowed by the news that star winger Lee Chung-yong was preparing to fly back home. The Bolton Wanderers man had, finally, been diagnosed with a hairline fracture of the shin Tuesday. His tournament looks to be over and certainly will be if Korea does not make it all the way to the final.

Head coach Uli Stielike stares at Cho Young-cheol. The German coach was not happy with South Korea's performance against Kuwait. (Yonhap)

Head coach Uli Stielike stares at Cho Young-cheol. The German coach was not happy with South Korea’s performance against Kuwait. (Yonhap)

“It’s a big loss,” said Stielike. “Every game, he is in the starting line-up. He plays every game for Bolton on the pitch. He has a lot of experience. I saw a lot of sad faces around him when the decision was taken to send him home but we have to go on.”

That’s football. Soon, talk of Lee was almost forgotten as the official team sheets were handed out an hour before the game. As expected, right-back Kim Chang-soo had failed to recover from his injury but there was more.

Not only was Son Heung-min absent — the star of the team as expected by many or at least hoped — but so were Koo Ja-cheol, captain until recently, and goalkeeper Kim Jin-hyun. Suddenly a match that many thought would be a stroll was looking like a struggle.

After a quiet half hour with almost nothing of note, Lee Keun-ho failed to convert an excellent one-on-one chance so the striker was relieved after 37 minutes when Nam Tae-hee headed home a perfect cross from Cha Du-ri, bombing down the right side and winding back the years.

It was all looking good, but out of nowhere Kuwait almost struck back early in the second half with Ali Al Maqseed hitting the post. And then, Korea fell apart for a while at least and Kuwait took control.

“Kuwait were much more offensive in their system, tactics and mentality but the players were prepared for this. In a lot of phases in the game, Kuwait was the better team. The result was very, very lucky today,” said Stielike.

Australia come next but fortunately, Korea has the points in the bank and can afford to relax a little.

“The main object now is the recuperation of the players,” said Stielike and admitted that things have to improve. “The good thing now is that we have six points but are no longer favorites. We can’t win the tournament playing football like this.”

Meanwhile, in another Group A match, host Australia pounded Oman 4-0, also marking a spot in the knock-out stage.