Player to Watch: S. Korea’s ‘New Vacuum Cleaner’ Han Kook-young

June 4, 2014
Han's play may have been the lone bright spot for South Korea in 1-0 loss to Tunisia last Wednesday. (Yonhap)

Han’s play may have been the lone bright spot for South Korea in 1-0 loss to Tunisia last Wednesday. (Yonhap)

South Korean midfielder Han Kook-young speaks to reporters on June 3, 2014, in Miami before the team's practice at St. Thomas University.

South Korean midfielder Han Kook-young speaks to reporters on June 3, 2014, in Miami before the team’s practice at St. Thomas University.

MIAMI (Yonhap) — South Korean midfielder Han Kook-young isn’t flashy by any stretch of the imagination. And yet he is still a coach’s dream – a type of unassuming, hard-working player that football cognoscenti could appreciate.

As South Korea prepares for the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Brazil at its camp in Miami, the 24-year-old said he will continue to make sacrifices for the team.

“I am trying not to have any regrets each day,” Han told reporters Tuesday before practice at St. Thomas University. “My goal is to dedicate myself to the team and not to lose battles against opposing players in midfield.”

South Korea, coached by Hong Myung-bo, suffered a 1-0 loss to Tunisia last Wednesday in Seoul, in its final pre-World Cup match at home. In an otherwise lethargic match, Han’s timely, clean tackles and overall physical play stood out.

His job was to cover for fellow midfielder Ki Sung-yueng defensively whenever Ki jumped out in front to join the attack. Though Han’s tackles often came in handy, he was also walking a tightrope. Miss by a few centimeters, and he could have been called for fouls or, worse yet, yellow cards.

Han said he is aware of the risks that come with his style of play.

“When opposing players struggle to control the ball, I go after them,” he said. “But I also have to be careful because if I miss them badly, it might lead to dangerous scoring chances.”

Han said he is more intent on holding his ground on defense than on helping out on offense and added, “The most important part of my job is to maintain good positioning in midfield.”

Han’s work ethic hasn’t been lost on South Korean fans, who have dubbed him the “New Vacuum Cleaner” after a veteran midfielder who plays a similar style of football. When South Korea made a historic run to the semifinals at the 2002 World Cup, starting midfielder Kim Nam-il came to be known as the “Vacuum Cleaner” for his tackling prowess that kept his zone clean of opposition threats.

Han played one match alongside Kim during South Korea’s Asian qualifying campaign for this year’s World Cup, and said he learned a lot from the 37-year-old veteran.

“In the past, I tended to tire easily because I was just running around the field too much,” Han said. “Kim told me to focus on blocking passing lanes, and I’ve since changed my style of play.”

Though Han has stepped up as a viable sidekick to Ki, his job is far from guaranteed. Park Jong-woo, who performed admirably in that role at the 2012 London Olympics, will be Han’s main competition for minutes in Brazil.

Han was named to the Olympic squad but was forced to return home just before the start of the preliminary round with a foot injury.

Hong Myung-bo had also coached the Olympic team. Since taking the reins of the senior team last summer, Hong once again reached out to Han, who has since responded with one solid match after another.

Incidentally, Han and Park are roommates here in Miami. On Monday, Park said he found it difficult to talk about competitions within the team. Han echoed his sentiment, saying, “Even though we’re roommates, I am not thinking too much about competition because doing so may have a negative effect on my play.”

Coach Hong, meanwhile, has decided to give his 23 players a break. The Korea Football Association (KFA) said the team will have Wednesday off to help players recover from their rigorous training in hot and humid conditions.

It will be the first day of rest for South Korea since arriving in Miami last Friday.

Goalkeeper Lee Bum-young and midfielder Ki Sung-yueng sat out Tuesday’s practice with mild cold symptoms. A team official said both had a fever and were kept out of training as a precaution.