A penalty gives Sweden a victory over South Korea. At the 2018 World Cup, Korea ended its first match in tears without a single shot on target. Dragging the world champion out of the competition, however, the national football team provided a sign of optimism for the next World Cup. Still, after its outstanding performance took Korea to the semi-final in 2002, it has failed to reproduce this performance and deep changes seem to be essential if Korea desires any improvement.
Despite a miraculous victory against Germany—the champion of the 2014 World Cup—Korea did not make it to the round of 16. However, the disappointing fallout for Korea at this World Cup was somewhat expected. Some argue that the team was depleted by so many injuries, and they were defeated even before the tournament began. Yet, results on the football pitch tell a much different story. In fact, systematic problems are the reason why Korea was on the brink of elimination.
▲ Korea is celebrating its goal against Germany. Provided by KFA
Failing to Impress
After the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Korea Football Association (KFA) made a so-called “Survival Guide Book” with some members of the national team, supporting staffs, football association officials and journalists. In the book, problems with KFA were mentioned including a frequent change of the coaches in charge. Insufficient mental and physical health care for the players on the team was another concern. All of these were found four years ago but such problems have yet to be solved.
For a quick shift, Ulrich Stielike was nominated as a new coach on September 5, 2017 by KFA. However, Ulrich was replaced due to the poor track record of the national soccer team, which made KFA quickly select Shin Tae-yong as a new supervisor a year before the opening of the 2018 World Cup. Yet the result was not good. In fact, the Japan Football Association also changed its coach two months before the World Cup, but Japan won and Korea did not. From this, it is evident that time itself cannot act as an excuse to cover up the core issues that keep clouding the Korean football scene.
There is also condemnation of the tactics behind the performance during this World Cup. Shin was criticized by the public for having spent too much time organizing his lineup, which resulted in a lack of time to see Korea in full command and control. He drew up battle plans that were sometimes too defensive for center forward, Son Heung-min, to score. The defense ended up giving too much space to the opponents, while the offense did not manage to create enough pass plays that could penetrate the opposing team’s defense line.
Why such a situation ended up happening could not only be explained by the failure of tactics or the ability of each player. The Korean national team has highly skilled players who have experience in playing for highly-ranked European league teams. Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur, is a world-wide super star who scored 21 goals last season. Ki Sung-yueng of Swansea City and Koo Ja-cheol of FC Augsburg are all renowned players. The Korean national team does have players adroit enough to form a competent team. Besides, many football analysts believe that the fundamental problem lies not in the players themselves, but in KFA’s incomplete preparation for the football tournaments.
KFA Is Trying to Proceed
A long-term plan or a clear roadmap seems to be what the Korean national team lacks. It is the responsibility of KFA to come up with a practical strategy, which can maximize the team’s potential, and hire a competent manager who can implement it well. Gus Hiddink who was the supervisor of the national football team in 2002 did find a genuine style of Korean football 16 years ago and he remained unshaken under numerous external circumstances. There was no regionalism, school relations, strong hierarchical rules or an interference of associations all of which have long been pointed out as the ills of sports culture in Korea. Consequently, coach Hiddink succeeded in reaching the semi-final and showed the way to proceed.
Above all the measures that KFA needs to take, the performance of the Korean goalkeeper Cho hints at the urgency of recruitment. During his first World Cup competition, he played a major role in keeping the Germans off the scoresheet throughout the entire games. Meanwhile, a “shift in generations” was the notion of the 2018 World Cup. Among the players of the countries that made it to the semi-final, only 34 out of 91 players had participated in the last World Cup. As the era of golden generation begins to fall, it is now KFA’s highest priority to dig out the hidden talents of a new generation.
In fact, KFA is currently working to help the development of youth football. According to Seo Dong-won, the supervisor of Korea University (KU) men’s football club, KFA is in the process of cultivating young athletes. “The association is trying to separate the young players into physical and technical sections considering which side the player has the advantage. This will eventually strengthen the foundation of Korean football,” said Coach Seo. From this, although a certain amount of criticism is necessary indeed, a consistent interest and focus of the Korean citizens for the progress that KFA will make are required.
Fans of the Korean national football team are not demanding that the team creates another World Cup miracle of advancing to the semi-finals. People hope that the Korean national team can and will find a way to resolve its current crisis through the continual efforts to take appropriate measures. What people want to see from the association is a practical solution that can prepare the team to stand against World Cup champions such as Germany, France or Brazil; and the next World Cup in Qatar may be a stopping point to check and see if appropriate measures taken have mended the cracks currently left unattended by KFA.