Towering Inferno

March 17, 2014

Korean World Cup team’s 6’ 6” striker Kim Shin-wook on fire in K-League 

Ulsan Hyundai striker Kim Shin-wook is off to a torrid start in the new K League Classic season. It remains to be seen whether he can maintain his current form and challenge Watford veteran Park Chu-young for the starting job on Korea’s World Cup team.  (Yonhap)

Ulsan Hyundai striker Kim Shin-wook is off to a torrid start in the new K League Classic season. It remains to be seen whether he can maintain his current form and challenge Watford veteran Park Chu-young for the starting job on Korea’s World Cup team. (Yonhap)

By Kim Tong-hyung

Kim Shin-wook neither admits nor denies being bummed about the calls for Park Chu-young to take over as the starting striker on Korea’s World Cup team. He will just let his play answer any skeptics.

The towering Ulsan Hyundai forward has been on a tear so far in the new K League Classic season, picking up where he left off last season when he finished tied for first in goals with 19.

He scored the only goal in the team’s 1-0 win against defending champions Pohang Steelers in the league opener on March 8. This came between goals against Australia’s Western Sydney Wanderers and Japan’s Kawasaki Frontale in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League Group H action. He scored again in the team’s 3-0 win over league rivals Gyeongnam FC on Sunday.

The 24-year-old’s scoring streak comes weeks after Korea’s 2-0 win over Greece in a friendly match in Athens, where Park, the Arsenal striker currently on loan to Watford, boosted his chances of making the World Cup squad by scoring the opener. Kim replaced Park in the second half of the game, but was not as influential.

Park’s solid display was a relief to Korea manager Hong Myung-bo, who had been alarmed by the national team’s lack of firepower in the past months. Among players, Kim absorbed most of the blame for the scoring woes, although this might not have been entirely fair to him.

It now seems that Hong’s first-choice target man in his favored 4-2-3-1 formation is Park’s job to lose.

Kim, in his sixth year as a pro, feels that the decision is out of his hands. All he can do is keep being impressive for his club.

“My scoring streak is fine, but I am more happy that my team has won each of the past four games. I have been running on fumes since the Kawasaki Frontale game, but victories like this keep me going,” Kim said after the Gyeongnam FC match.  “My dream is to score a goal in the World Cup. To make that dream come true, I will do my best in every game on the way. … Park is a player that I admire and I learn a lot from watching him play. I am trying not to count my goals and put too much pressure on myself. What’s important for me is that I become a better player.” Kim maintaining top form is critical for Hong. After the Greece match, Hong said he was satisfied about Park pulling off an impressive return to international football after a 13-month hiatus.

But Hong is not ready to put the country’s World Cup hopes on the shoulders of a fragile player who is struggling to find minutes in the nether-regions of English football.

The 27-year-old has been a benchwarmer for Watford, a middling team in the second-division Championship League. While Park is now nursing a minor knee injury he sustained during the Greece match, Watford manager Giuseppe Sannino was struggling to find minutes for him even before that.

While Kim may no longer be Hong’s striker, he may represent his most important insurance policy.

Unlike Park, Kim seems to be just entering his best years as an athlete. But while he is feared as a frontline predator in the domestic league, Kim has yet to prove he has the skills to be relevant at the highest level of international football.

Perhaps, his reputation as a player unfairly suffers from the immense expectations inspired by his rare combination of size, strength and athleticism. Built like a basketball power forward at 1.97 meters and 93 kilograms, Kim does bring plenty of intrigue.

But while his prolific scoring rate in the domestic league suggests he has the skills to exploit his frame, Kim has struggled to find the ideal balance between aggressiveness and composure at the international level, looking jumpy in some matches and drifting in and out in others.

While there’s no denying that he has been underachieving at the international level, it’s debatable whether it has been entirely his fault.

Hong had previously expressed frustration that Kim’s teammates on the national team were failing to deliver him the ball when and where he wants it. He wondered whether Kim’s towering presence inspires his teammates to punt the ball in his direction instead of creating better scoring opportunities.

Despite his height advantage, Kim has always been a player who is more comfortable finishing with his feet than head. While his abilities might have been underrated, it also seems clear he is a lesser player than Park was at similar age.During his better days, Park showed a nose for the net and an uncanny ability to win the ball in the air and hold it until support arrived. He also displayed good chemistry with Europe-based players Koo Ja-cheol, Ki Sung-yeung and Kim Bo-kyung-, as they engineered Hong’s bronze medal-winning team in the 2012 London Olympics.

Koo, Ki and Kim now form the core of Hong’s senior national team and Park is out to prove he is capable of joining them.

Hong will reopen the national team’s training camp ahead of a scheduled friendly against Tunisia in Seoul on May 28, which will be the last tune-up match before the World Cup.

The camp in May is expected to feature 30 players on the provisional World Cup roster. Hong’s final 23-man roster will be announced on May 29.

In the World Cup in Brazil, Korea is paired with Algeria, Belgium and Russia in Group H, and will open the tournament against Russia on June 17.