Younger but more experienced S. Korea should be competitive at World Cup

May 9, 2014
South Korea's strength is in their mid-field, consisting of Ki Sung-yeung (from left to right) , Ha Dae-sung, Han Koo-young, Park Jong-woo, Son Heung-min, Kim Bo-kyung, Lee Chung-yong, Ji Dong-won. (Yonhap)

South Korea’s strength is in their mid-field, consisting of Ki Sung-yeung (from left to right) , Ha Dae-sung, Han Koo-young, Park Jong-woo, Son Heung-min, Kim Bo-kyung, Lee Chung-yong, Ji Dong-won. (Yonhap)

By Yoo Jee-ho/Yonhap

When announcing South Korea’s 23-man squad on Thursday for this year’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil, head coach Hong Myung-bo said his players may be young, but they don’t necessarily lack experience.

And Korean football analysts mostly agreed with Hong’s view, saying the players have enough talent to be competitive in Brazil, where South Korea will face Algeria, Belgium and Russia in Group H.

Hong’s players are on average about 26 years old, almost two years younger than those on the last World Cup team four years ago. Defensive back Kwak Tae-hwi, at 32, is the only player over 30.

The core players are mostly in their mid-to-late 20s, in their athletic prime. Midfielders Lee Chung-yong and Ki Sung-yueng, are both just 25 years old, but have won 53 and 56 caps, respectively. They are among five players who also made the 2010 World Cup team in South Africa, along with goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong, 29, midfielder Kim Bo-kyung, 24, and forward Park Chu-young, 28.

Kim Dae-gil, an analyst for the cable station KBS N, also noted that most of the World Cup-bound players ply their trade overseas, and such experience should translate well into the big tournament.

“Because they’ve played for years overseas, they probably won’t be intimidated opponents (from other top leagues),” Kim said. Of 23 players, 17 are based in leagues in Europe, China and Japan.

“Conditioning could be a key in Brazil with hot and humid weather conditions, and having young players will help the team play speedy football,” Kim added.

Huh Jung-moo, head coach for the 2010 squad who is now a vice president of the Korea Football Association (KFA), said he found it “interesting” that the current team is younger but more experienced than the one he coached in South Africa.

“You can’t really say this team lacks veterans, when you consider the players’ international pedigree,” added Huh, who also does color commentary for MBC.

Hong has previously coached South Korea’s under-20 team at the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup, and under-23 squad at the 2010 Asian Games and then the 2012 Olympics. Five players have played for Hong in all three competitions. A dozen players won the bronze medal at the Olympics in London, the country’s first football medal.

Hong Myung-bo said while the players’ familiarity with the coach and teammates may be an asset, they will still have to start anew and put in even more effort because the World Cup is a different animal.

Hong also said this wasn’t the best World Cup team ever assembled by South Korea, and that he and his players will work hard so they can be remembered as the greatest.

Kim Dae-gil, the analyst, was more optimistic, calling the unit “the most competitive squad ever” for South Korea.

“These players have experience of playing in the Olympics and other international tournaments,” Kim Dae-gil said. “If the players perform to their full capabilities, this should be a good tournament.”

Han Joon-hee, an analyst for KBS, said Hong picked “players who could best execute his strategies.”

“Hong was named the coach about a year before the World Cup and didn’t really have much time,” Han said. “So I think he had no choice but to select familiar faces.”

Injuries have piled up for Hong’s players over the past month or so. Park Chu-young is recovering from foot inflammation and Ki Sung-yueng is dealing with knee tendinitis. Forward Koo Ja-cheol recently tweaked his back and missed a match in Germany. Midfielder Park Jong-woo has quad problems that forced him to return home in the middle of his Chinese season for treatment.

“A few players are clearly not on the top of their game right now,” Han said. “So they have to work themselves back into shape before the World Cup. Hong has stacked this squad with players who’ve been teammates before, but I am not sure if there is a Plan B or Plan C in case of any unexpected turn of events.”

Han said South Korea should devise an offensive scheme that can help the team’s scoring woes — only 15 goals in 14 matches coached by Hong — and should address the occasional lack of cohesion on defense.