17 for 2017: Korea Falls Backwards into the World Cup (Again) UPDATED

The roller coaster ride that is the Korea National Team took them to various highs and dizzying lows in 2017.  Korea managed to do both in one event: World Cup qualifying for Russia 2018 – while going backwards. They did similar fashion in the 2014 World Cup campaign amidst managerial turmoil and player locker room insurrections.  And yet despite the negative outlook on Korea’s form at the end of this process, 9 consecutive qualifications is a number that is, outside of perennial powerhouses like Brazil and Italy, a number that is impressive in it’s own right, a demonstration of some kind of substantive solidity within their system, at least enough at least to keep qualifying. But could this impression of Korea as a rising powerhouse in Asia over with this unimpressive run of form to end the campaign?

It’s somewhat instructive to examine this qualifying end as it may give a glimpse into the crystal ball and over the abyss to see what lies ahead. Fast forward to round 3 of Asian qualifying that began in earnest in September 2016 (after breezing through Round 2) Korea were grouped with Uzbekistan, Qatar, China, Iran and Syria. Top 2 go on to the big dance while 3rd place survivors gets the additional gauntlets to run with a extra 4th round + playoff with a CONCACAF opponent. Korea, on paper, is a team with a lot of advantages, with Premier League, Bundesliga and K-League ACL Champions League quality players in their ranks. Sizing up the group, Iran and Uzbekistan would be the toughest competition, but not insurmountable.  Oddsmakers had Korea qualifying without breaking too much sweat.

Uli Stielike’s downfall at the helm of the KNT had it’s genesis before this final round started, but the 3-2 bareknuckle win over China was a foreshadowing of the storm ahead.  Not to take China for granted -as they are state mandated to improve their current circumstances – games against China used to be a foregone conclusion. The scoreless draw with Syria a few days later added to the concerns – a team unable to train nor play any home games due to a massive civil war (you may have heard about it).  Korea had to make a comeback, 3-2 against Qatar in October, followed by a narrow 1-0 loss in Iran. The halfway mark in Round 3, an unimpressive 2-1 comeback in Seoul against Uzbekistan, some red flags were raised. The assessment so far:  Korea looked ready to cave defensively in each and every game. The offense looked out of sync and questionable call ups and puzzling substitutions further reinforced the sense that Uli Stielike was being exposed for his lack of real managerial experience. They were still scoring goals (8) but at the back they were hemorrhaging a high rate of goals, having already conceded 6.

After the New Year and qualification resuming in March 2017, Korea lost to China – the first time in years, a humiliating 1:0 disaster that sent it’s home supporters to the streets in celebration, even if China didn’t have a goat’s chance at qualifying themselves. The chatter to sack Stielike rose to a boil in midst of a lackluster 1-0 victory against Syria thanks to a Hong Jeong-Ho lucky strike. The final straw and the inevitable was delayed until Korea suffered another loss in June, another abject defeat, this time to Qatar, a reverse of the 3-2 scoreline from their earlier encounter. Qatar, like China, is a team that should be a win on paper. The abysmal tactics from bizarro world put in play by Stielike, the nonsensical substitutions, the bizarre scapegoating, almost Mourinho-like interviews, followed by a shocking 10 goals conceded in the back, Stielike had been on borrowed time for much too long and he was almost immediately sacked.  This terrible “Swansea-esque” managerial merry-go-round scenario was something Korea had hoped to avoid after the 2014 debacle which saw a creative yet flawed Cho Kwang-Rae replaced with a reluctant and tactically archaic Choi Kang-Hee, who can take credit with the original ‘falling into World Cup qualifying,’ only to resign with public pressure mounting on his ineffectualness and utter lack of confidence.  Hong Myong-Bo, a talismanic 2002 World Cup veteran took the reins with only months before the World Cup began, which ended poorly in Brazil. 3 managers in 3 years, not a paragon of stability. The KFA, which has more than it’s share of irresponsibility with dragging their feet on Stielike, turned the keys over to Shin Tae-Yong, a coach who was still getting his managerial learning curve under control.

The drama in front of them that had teeth and nerves chattering for Taeguk Warrior supporters was simply this: with Korea just barely in 2nd place in front of Uzbekistan and Iran having already qualified by dominating the group, their last two games would be against their toughest opponents …Iran and Uzbekistan. Could Shin Tae-Yong cobble enough together in time to get the results needed and get Korea over the finish line?

Showdown 1 was August 31, 2017 at Seoul World Cup Stadium against Iran.  Tense atmosphere, two fierce footballing rivals, and Shin’s first game in charge -Korea managed to get the advantage with Saied Ezatolahi sent off with a red card in the 52nd minute. Despite that, Korea managed to play worse after the man advantae, and the opportunity to claim all 3 points came and went with a limp scoreless draw.

The final showdown took place in Tashkent, Uzbekistan a 5 days later. This was Korea AND Uzbekistan’s last chance to put qualification to rest. The worrying signs were in place though, like a call up to an aging Lee Dong-Guk for one. Chances were taken, and danger was around every corner. Korea didn’t hesitate to go all out for that elusive 1st goal. Son hit the post, Jang Hyun-Su scuffed his shot, Kwon’s shot just wide of the net. Referencing back to the Tavern recap, an ineffectual Jang Hyun-Su getting injured and subbed out for a more proactive Koo Ja-Cheol might have been the saving grace as Korea saw out an extremely nerve wracking, heart attack inducing scoreless draw.  With Shin’s consecutive scoreless draws, Korea managed to fall backwards, back into the World Cup…yet again. It was just enough and Uzbekistan, despite their 2nd half rallying scramble to get on the scoreboard, were left without hope after Syria did the miraculous, a 2-2 draw with Iran in Tehran. Congratulations…I guess.

 

 

Despite my snarkiness, qualifying is no small feat (look no further than the tears of joy streaming from Egyptian supporters after Egypt ended years of World Cup qualifying drought).  Looking at the glass half full: despite conceding an appalling 10 goals, what passed under the grumbling radar was the fact that Korea did score 11 goals, more goals than table topping Iran. For more perspective, let’s take a quick look at those national programs that’s taking a long hard look at themselves after failing to qualify: The United States, Italy, Netherlands, Chile. There’s another debate as to whether it would have been better off for Korea not to qualify in order to get the necessary soul searching catharsis imperative for wide ranging reforms to be activated….see that in my post Uzbekistan thoughts here.

Just for good measure, I rehired the Tavern statistician – got to give the man a chance (especially since I’ve tortured the poor man for years without pay). He was able to dig up this up to answer my question on whether good form going into the final round of Asian qualifying led to good World Cup performances. The touchstone of World Cup excellence by a Korean squad is of course the 2002 World Cup edition. That side, led by Guus Hiddink had a cinderella run, slaying Italy and Spain enroute to the semifinals before getting stopped in their tracks by Germany in a close 1-0 result. Millions responded during this time by celebrating in the streets. It was bonkers.  2006 however was yet another tepid World Cup for Korea, 3 games and they were done. 2010 was the first World Cup a Korean squad advanced from their World Cup group – that is outside of Asia – and earning a ticket to the Round of 16. In that match Korea evened the score at 1:1 with Uruguay before Luis Suarez broke hearts with his late 80th minute curler that ended Korea’s run. 2014’s World Cup for Korea ended in ignominy, an early exit punctuated by a 4-2 drubbing by Algeria.

So given 2002 and 2010 were Korea’s “better” World Cup displays, what was qualification like?  In the final Round 3 back in 2008, Korea topped their group, but it was in truth, a bit uncomfortable. Korea drew 2-2 with Jordan and scoreless draws with North Korea -twice. They defeated Jordan in the return leg (narrowly, a 0-1 victory with a 24th minute penalty taken by Park Chu-Young) and built up a goal advantage over North Korea by beating up on Turkmenistan.  A 3 goal advantage beat out their neighbors to the north as they were both even on 12 points. 3 wins, 3 draws, no losses. Ok but not spectacular.

For 2002 Korea didn’t participate in any qualifiers. That’s because they were one of the host nations. But here’s the breakdown for Guus Hiddink’s pre World Cup record since the start of the Confederation Cup in May 2001: 6 wins, 5 draws, 6 losses. Some of those losses were quite big, 5-0 to France in the Confederation Cup opener  and 5-0 to the Czech Republic right after the tournament was over. But the narrative that could be made was Hiddink and his battle hardened players were learning fast, getting back on track with a 2-1 Confed victory over Mexico and a 1-0 win vs Australia. A Gold Cup sojourn in early 2002 blemished the Dutch coach’s record, illustrated by losses to Canada and the US. His last several World Cup tune ups:

Korea 2-0 Finland       March 19    Win

Korea 0-0 Turkey        March 25    Draw

Korea 4-1 Scotland      May 15         Win

Korea 1-1 England       May 20        Draw

Korea 2-3 France         May 25         Loss

2 wins, 2 draws and a narrow loss to France – all against European competition. In that context, team form wasn’t too bad. Only days later Korea opened the tournament June 4th with a 2-0 victory over Poland – and remarkably their first victory in a World Cup final in all the years they’ve qualified (1954, 1986, 1990,1994 and 1998). The rest is history.

 

The final verdict: a better indication of how Korea might do in the World Cup finals isn’t necessarily their final qualifying round, but in the last several friendly matches going into the tournament. Many factors will no doubt come into play in terms of how well Korea might fare, but consider that in 2014, Korea lost 4 and only won twice in the run up to the World Cup in Brazil. An even closer look — last two matches before the tournament start in May 2014: a 1-0 loss to Tunisia before a much ominous 4-1 loss to Ghana, an impending sign of the defensive struggles to come.  Contrast with 2010, 7 wins and 4 losses in the 1st half of that year before Korea’s adventure in South Africa – with a 2:0 win over Ecuador, a 0-2 away win in Japan, and a more intense test that saw Korea lose 0-1 over the eventual World Cup champions, Spain.

 

 

 

Presently…while Korea has stumbled during and after qualifying under Shin Tae-Yong, a 2-0 win over Colombia and a 1-1 draw with Serbia in November has been an encouraging step in a positive direction as we wrap up 2017. Coupled with a E1 tournament victory – a 4-1 victory over Japan in Tokyo, Korea’s form may not necessarily be defined by how miserable they looked despite qualifying.  Recent additions to the coaching staff, including Spaniards fitness coach Javier Miñano and in particular, technical advisor Toni Grande (both served as coaching assistants to Del Bosque at Real Madrid and for the Spanish National Team)  Shin Tae-Yong has seemed to find a bit of verve in employing a quasi 4-4-2 that has proven effective.  Son Heung-Min has found his scoring boots and with it, the possibility that he can finally be implemented in a system as effective as the one he has carved out with Tottenham.

 

UPDATED Extra Time: to compliment Shin Tae-Yong’s options going forward, Son has been in good form for his club, and scored in the last 24 hours in a boxing day massacre of Southampton.  Son had 2 assists (his first assist of the day allowed Harry Kane to tap in and record his 56th goal for club and country, somehow beating Lionel Messi’s 54 goals for the calendar year 2017) and Son scored with a great pass from Dele Alli who was able to find Son, thanks to his blazing pace that opened a country mile gap. His finish clinical with a bit of ruthless swagger.

 

 

 

 

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