S. Korea coach looking to wrap up World Cup qualification round on winning note

June 7, 2024

With a resounding win over Singapore on Thursday night, South Korea have already secured a place in the next phase of the Asian qualification for the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

Kim Do-hoon, caretaker manager for the national team, insisted Friday the job is not yet done for his boys.

The South Korean team returned home from Singapore on Friday morning, some 12 hours after routing Singapore 7-0 in the teams’ Group C match in the second round of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) World Cup qualification.

By improving to 13 points, South Korea locked down the top spot in their group and thus a ticket to the third round, with one match to spare.

South Korea will close out the second round by hosting China at Seoul World Cup Stadium at 8 p.m. Tuesday, and Kim said beating China would be the icing on the cake.

“Just as we gave our fans joy with the win over Singapore, we would all like to finish this round well on our home pitch,” Kim told reporters at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul. “It’s not just myself. Everyone on the team feels the same.”

Kim noted that there is still much at stake for South Korea, even with a place in the third round secured.

South Korea, at world No. 23, will now try to remain among the three best AFC nations in the FIFA rankings and earn one of the top three seeds for the third round.

In the current rankings, South Korea are the third-highest AFC team, behind Japan (18th) and Iran (20th), and slightly ahead of Australia (24th). Australia are only 0.03 point back of South Korea.

The June rankings will determine the seeding for the third round, which kicks off in September with 18 qualifiers divided into three groups of six. The top three seeds will be kept separated and will each end up in Groups A, B and C.

With Japan and Iran comfortably ahead of South Korea and Australia, grabbing the third seed means avoiding Japan or Iran in the same group in the third round.

“Our remaining goal is to be one of the top seeds,” Kim said. “And regardless of the quality of our opponents, the key is for us to play our football. I think that’s the direction we have to take. The focus will be on playing the way we want to play.”

Kim is the second caretaker boss for South Korea in three months. The Korea Football Association (KFA) has not been able to find a permanent replacement for Jurgen Klinsmann, who was fired in February after South Korea’s disappointing exit from the semifinals at the AFC Asian Cup.

Faced with a time crunch before two World Cup qualifying matches in March, the KFA leaned on Hwang Sun-hong, then head coach of the men’s under-23 national team, as the temporary manager for the senior side. Then the KFA missed its self-imposed, early-May deadline to appoint a new full-time coach and brought in Kim, a former K League coach with some experience working in Singapore, as the latest caretaker coach on May 20.

Kim praised his players for executing their plans well despite having little time to train as a unit.

“Our positioning was excellent,” he said. “We scored early, and that allowed us to remain in control through the end.”

Kim had selected seven players with no prior experience with the senior national team, and four of them made their debuts against Singapore. Two of them even connected for a goal, with Park Seung-wook of Gimcheon Sangmu FC setting up Bae Jun-ho of Stoke City.

Kim credited the team’s leadership group, including captain Son Heung-min, with creating an environment where those new faces could settle in and have success.

The coach said he was particularly impressed with Bae, the 20-year-old playmaker named Stoke City’s Player of the Season last month.

“Having worked with him on his trip, I realized he has so much potential. I am really looking forward to his development,” Kim said. “I think he showed unique qualities on the pitch. He’s constantly moving when he’s trying to make plays, instead of stopping the ball at his feet. Fans will see that we have a new type of player on hand.”