Korea’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Iran and Uzbekistan could have a huge impact on the future of football in the country. While a complete grass-roots revamp might be welcomed by some, there’s very little good to come from missing a World Cup. New manager Shin Tae-yong seems to be viewed as something more than just a short-term fix, although a one-year contract is hardly a vote of confidence. What isn’t in doubt, however, is that what Korea need in the next two World Cup qualifying games is very much short-term results [August 31: Korea v Iran & September 5: Uzbekistan v Korea]. Blooding in youngsters and looking to the future may well all go out of the window for now, because Shin’s team simply need to get results.
One area of the squad that’s been lacking in recent years is an out-and-out striker of real quality. Whether Shin decides to stick with Stielike’s favourites or shake things up completely, his choice of number 9 will come under enormous scrutiny should things with Iran go awry. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the likely (and not-so-likely) contenders.
While opinion is split on the majority of Korea’s attacking options, one man almost certain to make Shin’s next squad and play a significant part is Hwang Hee-chan. Fast, exciting, and coming off a goalscoring season in Europe, Hwang was one of the few positives in the damaging qualifying defeat to Qatar. The fact that he opened his international account in that game and is already off the mark this summer with a Champions League qualifying goal only adds to his case for inclusion. It’s likely that Hwang will draw attention from clubs across the border in Germany this summer, but whatever happens, he appears to have a big role to play in the coming games for his country.
What a welcome sight it was to see Lee driving down the wings again with that Taeguk tiger on his chest in the last international meet-up. A player who has enjoyed hot and cold seasons throughout his career, Gangwon’s captain is very much in a hot, toasty, mind-you-don’t-burn-your-fingers purple patch. Playing mainly through the middle for his club because of Jung Jo-gook’s absences, Lee has been his usual pacey, hardworking self, creating as many chances for others as he does for himself. While his goalscoring has not been prolific, he is a quietly consistent scorer for the national team and it would be a surprise if he doesn’t make the next squad. He is still more likely to be utilised by Tae-yong in one of the winger slots or off the bench, but recent performances mean he’s worth a second thought in that number nine role.
Say what you will, you can’t argue with Kim’s scoring record in the domestic league, nor in the Asian Champions League. While his chance for a move to Europe may have come and gone, Kim is one of those frustrating conundrums for national team fans. Whether being a genuine nuisance for defenders or simply a desperate hey-Kim-Jin-su-send-in-some-high-crosses-quick-we’re-a-goal-down option, Kim scores goals… except when he pulls on the Taeguk red. Not playing to his strengths? Not good enough for the step up in class? The jury’s still out. But should Wookie get a call-up, there will be plenty of questions shot in Shin Tae-yong’s direction.
Perhaps the opposite to the Kim Shin-wook problem, Lee Jung-hyub is consistently labelled not good enough for the national team, and yet his goal record under Stielike has to be respected. His disappointing year on loan with Ulsan was the final straw for most fans, but the first half of the year at Busan IPark (admittedly at Challenge level) has given others hope that he still might go on to bigger and better things. The bad news for Lee is that injury broke up his excellent start to the year and he’ll need to pick up the pieces quickly, especially as he’s become something of a symbol of Stielike’s selection controversies. Perhaps because of that more than anything, it’s hard to see him making Shin’s list.
Remember, the next two games are simply that: two games. Forget next summer, forget the future, Korea just need to progress. Shin Tae-yong clearly has this is mind, as his recent comments about The Lion King suggest the 38 year-old still can’t be ruled out. While this could yet be the year that Dong-gook’s legs finally give out, recent goals against Pohang and Seoul have reminded everyone of his almost peerless finishing ability. While he may not be a serious option to lead the line against Iran, there are worse players to throw into the penalty area for the last fifteen minutes if things aren’t going the way Korean fans hope they will.
And so we come to the domestic league’s top Korean scorer. Pohang’s captain is without a national team call-up since two substitute appearances back in 2009, which was well before he ever fulfilled his potential. Without doubt one of the league’s most consistent goal-scorers in the past few years (he has 58 league goals since the start of 2013, sandwiched nicely between Lee Dong-gook’s 55 and Kim Shin-wook’s 62), Yang is also a team player. In the same period, he has registered 19 assists, more than Dong-gook’s 15 and Shin-wook’s 14. While he has far less ACL experience than the other two, he is certainly the form man and confidence will not be an issue.
The man who led the line for Korea in the past two World Cups is still someone who divides opinion. His performances in the last tournament made him as much of a scapegoat for Korea’s early exit as anyone, and it’s hard to see how another recall will be looked upon favourably by fans. The hard truth might be that while he retains a solid goalscoring instinct and a good footballing brain, Park just doesn’t make enough impact on his own to warrant inclusion for such important games. It’s great to see Park playing games and scoring goals regularly again after those years in the footballing wilderness, but maybe Korean fans should just be happy with that for now.
Suk Hyun-jun has all but disappeared off the scene with Porto recently after all ill-advised move away from Vitoria Setubal; he’ll need to hit the ground running with a new club to even warrant discussion. For now, he’s returned to training preseason at Porto after a forgettable loan spell in the wilderness of Hungary (Debrecen anyone?). Hwang Eui-jo made a slow start in the Challenge with Seongnam this year, and it’s hard to see him getting the call unless he starts breaking records in the J-League with new club Gamba Osaka. Ji Dong-won is likely to be involved, but his days of being an out-an-out striker appear to be over, while Lee Jong-ho could well be worth a recall; he’s been returning to form as the central striker for a resurgent Ulsan, although he might not be seen as enough of a goalscoring threat.
After impressing recently, Hwang Hee-chan has to get the nod to start against Iran, with Yang Dong-hyun ready to come off the bench to show previous managers what they’ve been missing. The wild card? If Cameroon’s Roger Milla can score World Cup goals at 38 and 42 years old, it’s not out of this world to think that Lee Dong-gook can still make an impact at this level. It would be a brave call, but big moments call for big decisions, and this is very much a big moment for Korean football.