The Asian Games are where Korean footballers’ exemption dreams come to die. In hindsight, it’s easy to take this narrative; nobody foresaw this result tonight. But you read that right – Korea 1, Malaysia 2.
The slip-up came in the Group Stages, so there’s mercy yet for the 20 Korean men fighting for a shot at military exemption, but another faux pas will see them hung, drawn and quartered, marched to the military like normal Korean men, and seen their dreams of the elusive military exemption vanish like their ambitions to move to Europe or lavish CSL and Middle Eastern paychecks.
— Kim Hak-bum sought to rotate the side that defeated Bahrain 6-0 less than 46 hours ago, making 5 changes to the starting line-up; Lee Si-young replacing Kim Moon-hwan at right wingback, three changes in the midfield with the introduction of Lee Jin-hyeon, Kim Gun-woong and Kim Jung-min at the expense of Hwang In-beom, Lee Seung-mo and Jang Yun-ho, while Na Sang-ho was rotated out for Hwang Hee-chan in the front line.
The match itself had a rather simple narrative: Malaysia capitalized on early chances, hit through the counter, and bunkered down (sometimes down, lying down on the pitch) to claw themselves to a win. It wasn’t a disgraceful victory, by no means – the Malaysians worked extremely hard, and after Singapore’s 1-0 win over Japan in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, and Vietnam and Thailand’s recent success on both youth and senior levels, there’s verifiable proof across the board that South East Asian talent is on the rise.
In more specific detail, the first Malaysian goal arose from a comedy of errors. A bouncing ball that Song Bum-keun, the Korean goalkeeper, should have easily claimed in his box – but Hwang Hyun-soo, the left centre-back, decided to go for a clearance as well, clattering into his compatriot and spilling the ball to Rashid, the Malaysian striker, tapping home into a gaping net. Did Song not give a shout? Did Hwang ignore it? One can only speculate, but the result was the same. Malaysia had wind in their sails, and Korea had gifted them on a silver platter what they did not gift even once to any opponent in the 2014 Asian Games; a goal, and a lead.
The 45th minute saw Korea’s situation go from bad to worse. The non-rotated defense was caught flat-footed as the pacy Rashid dribbled right between their discombublated lines, muscling past Hwang Hyun-soo and toe-poked a ball meekly on goal. If Song wasn’t at fault for the first goal, he was brutally exposed on the second, his poor positioning allowing for what should have been a save-able effort to skip away off the far post and in. 2-0 Malaysia at half-time, and you could almost hear the clitter-clatter of the keyboards from Korean journalists in the stadium writing up their obituaries.
Kim Hak-bum made two substitutions in the second half as the noose began to tighten just a little on his personal national team managerial ambitions. First, it was Hwang In-beom, who had provided such zest and spark for Korea in midfield against Bahrain, ratcheting up three assists, and second, Son Heung-min, the man for whom most fans even bother watching this tournament. The “break glass in case of emergency” card had been played by Kim, who had no modification or invention or idea that didn’t include simply throwing on Korea’s best player and hoping for the best. And in truth, that’s exactly what happened. The stubborn 3-5-2 shape remained, and Korea continued to try and choke the ball down the throats of the Malaysians, who had packed 5 defenders along the mouth of their penalty box. Even though they elected to move wide sometimes and make use of their wingbacks, as the game wore on both Kim Jin-ya, and to a greater extent, Lee Si-young, were either unfindable or unable to make any play of impact. In that respect, electing to play a 3-5-2 system with emphasis on the wingbacks when it is clearly Korea’s weakest position now comes into the realm of reasonable debate.
No longer can the position of “it’s the Group Stages”, we’ll walk it, be used as an excuse. The fire alarm pulled by Kim Hak-bum didn’t have much effect, however. It was as if all the kids thought it was a drill, and not the real deal. The same clueless endeavours remained; sloppy passing, poor spacing, and inability to play through lines and make intricate plays. In the second half, Korea had a plethora of small quarter- or half-chances, but nothing clear-cut that required a show-stopper from the Malaysian net-minder, who wasn’t kept particularly busy. A glimmer of hope arose in the 90th minute, when Hwang Ui-jo – ironically the player who was maligned by fans as a waste of space before the Asian Games, and also the one non defensive player who started the Bahrain game (and thus operating on the worst fitness), urgently tapped home a good lobbed ball over the defense by Lee Jin-hyeon. But the second goal for the draw never came ; Son Heung-min had the best chance off of a free-kick, curled just wide, but Malaysian time-wasting and poor Korean passing saw any momentum ruptured. Full-time blew. It’s as simple as this; anyone out there claiming to believe this result was going to happen is not someone worth associating with, and anyone out there rejoicing in a “wake-up call” defeat is being facetious.
This may have been a wake-up call, but it came far too soon in the tournament for it not to presage more troubled times. And though we focus only on the micro level tonight, it’s not too far of a stretch to say that if things take another twist, the Indonesia 2018 Asian Games will be where this reputation of the over-arching smug superiority of Korean football over its Asian minnow peasants will come to die. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing in hindsight – Kim Hak-bum might learn something from not more or less saying that the Group Stages are a joke – but there’s far worse. The Indonesia 2018 Asian Games could well be where Son Heung-min’s career – the career of Korea’s prodigal son, the career of the best Korean footballer of our time – came to die.