It’s hard to think of a World Cup without South Korea.
In fact, this is the ninth consecutive time that they’ve qualified, and their tenth in total.
However, they’ve only twice qualified from their group, and have never won a knockout match without going to extra time. Their exploits at the 2002 World Cup still live long in the memory; victories over Italy via golden goal and Spain on penalties saw the host nation qualify for the semi-finals, before they suffered a heartbreaking 1-0 defeat against Rudi Völler’s Germany after a late Michael Ballack strike.
Guus Hiddink’s South Korea went on to claim fourth spot in the tournament, as well as a place in football folklore in the process. Their current crop of stars will be hoping to add a new chapter to that history.
The road to Russia
Qualification for 2018 started without trouble for South Korea, with the side winning all eight matches in a group that contained Lebanon, Kuwait, Myanmar, and Laos. This, however, only put them through to the next round of qualification, and they were drawn against Iran, Syria, Uzbekistan, China, and Qatar.
Head coach Ulli Stielike was sacked during the second round of qualifying after picking up only 13 points from eight games, and was replaced by former national team player Shin Tae-yong for their final two matches. Luckily, their four victories under Stielike (all at home), along with with two draws in their final games, were just enough to see them take second place in the group, though far behind the group winners Iran.
How do they play?
Despite limping over the qualifying line for the World Cup, South Korea are an attacking, direct team, though this approach may come unstuck in what many are calling one of the tournament’s hardest groups. They have pace and flair leading the line in Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min, and he is backed by classy midfielders such as former Swansea midfield and national team captain Ki Sung-yueng, and Jeonbuk Hyundai’s Lee Jae-sung.
In terms of tactics, coach Shin played a flexible 4-4-2 formation in the two qualifying games that he managed, yet with South Korea’s attacking nature, this could easily turn into a 3-4-3 if the Taeguk Warriors need a goal. Interestingly, speaking to local media, South Korea’s coach noted that he may bring a different style and formation to the World Cup. He said ”Swedish media report that we’re going with 4-4-2, but if that’s what they want to believe, I have nothing to say, but I must say we’re also preparing other things. We can come up with new tactics.”
This being said, it is worth nothing that South Korea’s squad has an average age of 27.8, which is higher than the squad they took to Brazil in 2014; yet, despite having an older squad, it still features a lot of players with little international experience.
Who is their star player?
It’s safe to say that when many Europeans think of South Korea, then one man springs to mind, and it’s hard to pick anyone else as the nation’s star player. Son Heung-min has had another fantastic season in the Premier League this year, scoring 12 league goals, whilst also becoming the record Asian goalscorer in England’s top flight.
The Tottenham Hotspur player was also South Korea’s top goal scorer in qualification, and the Reds will be looking towards him for inspiration in the final third of the pitch.
In terms of younger players, keep an eye on Red Bull Salzburg’s Hwang Hee-chan. Hwang is only 22 years old and has just two goals at international level, yet his experience in helping take RB Salzburg to the Europa League semi-finals should set him in good stead for the tournament.
The striker has scored an impressive 15 goals in 44 appearances in Austria, and it has been said that both Tottenham and Liverpool were scouting him this year; so I’m sure that this will not be the last we hear from him.
How far will they go?
It would be great to see South Korea finally win a knock-out match in normal time this tournament, but I don’t think that will happen. Group F has pitted coach Shin’s team against a Zlatan-less Sweden, as well as Mexico and current World Cup holders Germany. South Korea will look to take what they can from Sweden in the first game and Mexico in their second before a tough trip against Germany.
If they do go on to surprise, then a Round of 16 tie against either Brazil, Costa Rica, Switzerland, or Serbia lays in wait.
Optimistically, I can see South Korea taking four points, but that will probably not be enough.
What should we watch out for?
Whilst the South Korean national team has bags of attacking flair, its fair to say that their defence hardly covers itself in glory at the best of times.
By the looks of Shin’s World Cup squad, there is a distinct lack of international experience, and lapses of concentration are known from the team – something to keep an eye on, but not for good reasons.
That being said, once South Korea get their teeth stuck into a game, then whoever they are playing know that they are in for a fine battle.