The year following a World Cup is always crucial for any national team.
You have four years to assemble a new squad to perform on the greatest stage. The journey begins with qualifying out of your confederation.
For Korea in particular, it’s a unique time; within our confederation, we can compete. We start in the third round of AFC World Cup qualifying this fall. And usually, before we even get to that point, there’s a couple friendlies where before the start of a new cycle, there’s new personnel and new bits to our game that fans begin to look forward to.
At least, that’s how it should be.
For our national side, we haven’t had a chance to see such fruitful evolution to our game since the cycle arriving to the 2010 World Cup – stamped emphatically when then 19-year old Ki Sung-yong scored a late World Cup Qualifying equalizer against North Korea, which funnily enough saved then-under-fire manager Huh Jung-moos’s bacon back in ‘08.
It wasn’t all rainbows and roses, but all things being considered, it was a good time. Lee Chung-yong and Ki Sung-yong cemented themselves as starters at the ripe age of 19, who had been playing their football together in FC Seoul’s senior squad managed under Senol Gunes at the time.
In the end, Korea had arrived to South Africa with a team led by Park Ji-sung, veteran Lee Young-pyo deputing the back, and one of Korea’s best in Park Chu-young with his chance to redeem his last disappointing World Cup outing in Germany.
With them arrived a fledgling Jung Sung-ryong, who at the time was considered Korea’s next best goalkeeping prospect, Lee Chung-yong and Ki Sung-yong starting in midfield with Park Ji-sung, and then-prospects Kim Bo-kyung and Lee Seung-ryeol making the 23-man cut.
It was a balanced squad. Sprinkled amongst the starters and veterans were the equally important AFC professionals – Yeom Ki-hun, a left-footed offensive asset, the underrated Kim Jung-woo, a holding midfielder whose like we’ve yet to see again in the national side, and of course, two World Cup goals-scoring centre-back Lee Jung-soo.
We also started moulding this team almost immediately after the World Cup in Germany.
In 2006, despite not qualifying into the round of 16 back then, we were a formidable side – the only team failing to qualify out of its group despite a 4 point tally.
And we played the part too – with Seol Ki-hyeon and Lee Chun-soo at the time, we had options out wide. With Lee Chun-soo especially, we had an opportunity with free kicks.
Furthermore, we were quite balanced; Lee Eul-yong brought his characteristic steel to our midfield all the while being technically adept, and Kim Nam-il always brought protection to our defense. We also had the technical Kim Do-heon as an offensive option to come off the bench.
All but one of those players mentioned above made the cut to South Africa.
There were always challengers in men’s national team. But more importantly, there were opportunities given to those challengers. Kim Jung-woo was introduced and utilized more and more as the defensive option to provide protection in the midfield. Yeom Ki-hun continued to perform whenever called up, starting from the Asian Cup ‘07. Even Lee Keun-ho contributed greatly in the redevelopment of the national side, who narrowly missed out on the World Cup in South Africa, but got called up four years later in Brazil.
Mind you; these are all K-League products being mentioned.
Forget about the European performers; we’re aware of their ability. We can watch them week in week out.
Comparing how the Korean National Team used to rebuild its side, the intentions of the KFA and Bento’s most recent call-ups could not be more different in regards to building towards a team to look forward to in three summers’ time.
Hong Chul and Lee Yong are finished, firstly. At 28, Hong Chul’s regular appearances are more indicative of the dearth of quality we have at left-back, and the 32 year old Lee Yong puts in good cross maybe once every twenty-five times.
Neither of them will be part of the picture in four years.
To call up Son Heung-min, Kwon Chang-hoon, and Lee Jae-sung is overkill. The national side has nothing to play for at the moment. We failed to win the Asian Cup. We’re competing in friendlies against fellow AFC teams Iran and Australia. Why are we bringing established starters that need to travel across the world for pointless friendlies?
That’s not to mention our European starlets in Lee Seung-woo, and Paik Seung-ho, who’ve failed to make much of an impression with their respective clubs teetering between Serie B/A and La Liga/Segunda in Italy and Spain, respectively.
Furthermore, Bento’s picks are uninspiring – the baffling of the lot being K-League 2 striker Lee Jeong-hyeop.
For those unfortunate enough to remember, this joker once did have a stint with our national side when we were stuck with the asinine Stielike. His call-ups, most notably in the 2015 Asian Cup squad, were just as they are now: absurd.
But the most glaring issue is the sameness.
Just to be clear – we failed in 2018. We didn’t make it out of the group stage. In fact, we did the exact opposite of what we were expected to do. We lost to Sweden and Mexico, and somehow beat Germany.
We were poor when it mattered most, and instead addressing the issues, there’s a startling sameness in Korea’s most current personnel at the most opportune moment to experiment and improve. Kim Moon-hwan and Hwang In-beom are the type of players Korea should be seeing more of, although for whatever reason it’s only Hwang In-beom given significant game time.
Understandably, it’s a bit early to judge the ability of the squad, but overall signs are disappointing. And look – perhaps Korea lights up the two friendlies against AFC opposition and come away with a score where we score more than two, but when it comes to the long term project and the ultimate goal, which is to prepare for the next World Cup, there’s little ambition. There’s more of the same, and it stinks of complacency at best, incompetence at worst.
It’s a different generation now. The fruits of our labor back in 2010, continuing with Koo Ja-cheol, Ji Dong-won, and Kim Young-gwon, are finally beginning to age. Instead of seeking alternatives, Bento’s shown an over-reliance on European players and sub-par Asian performers that haven’t been challenged. Don’t tell me Paik Seung-ho deserves to be in the senior squad. Don’t tell me we don’t have a single domestic forward that can challenge Hwang Ui-jo.
It’s our defense, for once, that’s buying us time. Kim Young-gwon and Kim Min-jae are a heralded centre-back pairing, and with Jo Hyeon-woo between the sticks, supporters can feel safe. Kim Jin-su is still a competent fullback, and Kim Moon-hwan should see more minutes.
Hopefully it’s enough time for Bento to improve our side, but insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. We’ll see how it unfolds, but for sanity’s sake let’s hope Bento knows something we don’t.