The dust has cleared. We’ve all come down from the euphoria of watching our Taeguk Warriors dump the World Champions Die Mannschaft (German National Team) out of the World Cup. We’ve all laughed at the hilarious gifs, memes, and videos circulating the Internet. However, it has been a few days and now we’re itching to start talking about the future. So the question becomes: What now? What next for our national team and how do we digest what just happened in our World Cup campaign?
This will be a new series called The Bottom Line. It’s going to be a place for our writers to state their opinions on an important issue currently being discussed in the Korean football circles. We’ll present two separate arguments and then let you all get active in the comments and have your say. We’re going to bring this series back when the debates are really brewing so keep an eye out and let us know if there’s a debate you want us to weigh in on! For today here’s the question: Did Korea succeed at the 2018 World Cup?
Michael’s Bottom Line: Son became a leader, Cho became a superstar and the team fought through adversity. We did better than in Brazil – this is success
For my answer to this question, I want to look to the KNT’s future and make sure to be examining what our performance at the World Cup actually means.
To make my argument, I want to take a step back to July of last year when Shin Tae-yong was named manager of the National Team. At the time, Korea were struggling in the final round of AFC World Cup Qualifying and had just lost 3-2 to Qatar. Uli Stielike was let go as manager and Shin was brought with 2 rounds of matches remaining. His task was simple: get Korea to the World Cup and prepare them to compete there. With 2 tense draws against Iran and Uzbekistan, Shin accomplished his first stated goal and we qualified for the World Cup.
However, his next task was to prepare us for the World Cup and make sure we were ready to compete in the Group of Death with Germany, Mexico, and Sweden. With lots of ups and downs, Shin guided the Taeguk Warriors through friendlies in the fall, won the EAFF E-1 Championship, and then planned friendlies for the World Cup. Throughout the whole process, he was far from convincing. The national team struggled to play attacking football, the defense fluctuated from looking strong one match to looking a shambles the next, and the comments to the press became more and more puzzling.
The World Cup rolled around and Shin named an incredibly surprising roster. The mainstays were there, some surprises were in the squad, and offensive options were left home for puzzling reasons. The Sweden match was a stolid affair where we looked tentative going forward and couldn’t get a shot on target. The Mexico match was an improvement but we again lost because our defensive mistakes came back to haunt us. After 2 matches, Shin Tae-yong had us on 0 points with a minuscule chance of advancing from the group. We were receiving criticism left and right. We all know what happened next: we beat Germany, finished 3rd in Group F, and were celebrated for this gutsy win over the defending champions. We had been eliminated from the World Cup, but we could hold our heads high and enjoy the moment of becoming sincerely loved by the Mexican fans.
Is this a success? To me, yes. I don’t want to comment on our play, the decisions made by those in charge to get to this point, or whether it is right to celebrate getting eliminated in the group stages. Instead, I want to focus on the consequences of our elimination and what that means for the future of the KNT. In my mind, I see many positive consequences coming from this elimination.
I’ll start with the most significant consequence coming from this elimination: it looks as though Shin Tae-yong will be leaving the national team in the coming weeks. KORFootballNews reported that Shin Tae-yong is unlikely to be offered a contract extension. This is very good news as Shin’s preparation for this World Cup, conservative tactics, and roster selections all left a lot to be desired. However, I had an awful feeling that the KFA might make the opposite decision if we had pulled off a miracle and advanced out of the group. I would have felt that the extension for Shin absolutely wouldn’t be deserved since he did everything to make sure that we were in the worst possible position to advance going into the Germany match.
Another way I think this World Cup was a success was that the team fought through all the injuries to inspire the public again. People thought we were doomed when Kwon Chang-hoon, Lee Keun-ho, Kim Jin-su, and Kim Min-jae were all forced to withdraw from the squad due to injury. But even as injuries kept coming, the squad kept on fighting and putting their absolute all into each match. Were the results great? No. However, I ended each match feeling that the players were doing absolutely everything to try to win and make their country proud. That was something that the public needed to fall back in love with this team and I hope the KFA and K League can build on that feeling.
Finally, we were introduced to some new stars and were able to get an idea of what to expect with the Asian Games approaching at the end of August. We now have a new star goalkeeper, Cho Hyun-woo, and he is already winning praise around the world. He is making the best XIs from the group stages, scouts are lauding his play, and he is talking about his dream to play in Europe. He may even force his way into the Asian Games squads so that he can gain exemption and make a dream winter move to Europe. Who knows? Now let’s talk about Lee Seung-woo. He was the surprise inclusion in the squad but he showed flashes of promise in the friendlies and his brief World Cup appearances. People wondered if he was ready for the step up to senior international football and he provided a response. While he may need time to adjust, he has the skills to play with the big boys and deserves his spot. Kim Hak-bum is already considering adding him to the Asian Games squad with his fellow La Masia graduate Paik Seung-ho. The emergence of this two is unquestionably a success.
Finally, let’s talk about Sonny. He finally gave us some joy in a KNT kit. Did he light up the World Cup? No, definitely not. But he scored two great goals and most importantly emerged as a leader going forward. Captain Ki is already considering retiring from international football but Sonny really led the boys out against Germany. I saw it in that celebration after his goal. He immediately jumped into the arms of the subs and just took in the moment with his teammates. His comments all World Cup were very responsible and even though he needs to improve as a player, his leadership really shone in this tournament. The cherry on top for Sonny? He only played 3 matches at the World Cup so he can now join the training for the Asian Games a little bit fresher. I know this may rub some the wrong way but we have to be real and admit that the Asian Games is more important when it comes to Sonny’s career arc. He had a good World Cup, has room to improve, and can now get to training to make sure he wins a military exemption.
I don’t expect everyone to agree with me but I do think that this World Cup was a success even if it ended with an elimination in the group stages for the second World Cup in a row. We performed better in Russia than we did in Brazil and we can now move forward with a new manager and our eyes firmly focused on how this team needs to improve. The future squad has a lot of potential and I am already looking forward to taking the 2022 World Cup by storm!
Tim’s Bottom Line: This World Cup was a failure – the Germany win was fun & historic, but in the bigger picture is defeat
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not on the “throwing eggs and pillows at the team” train, or even the “Jang Hyun-soo should be blasted forever” train. The team has no obligations towards me, and to its fans it owes only one thing – to try its hardest. Which they did. And we’re damn proud of them for it. But ultimately, for reasons within and beyond their control, the team failed to reach the objective it has always set itself – to advance to the knockout stages. Purely on that level, the team has failed, irrespective of the glorious and historic 2-0 win over Germany. There’s no two ways about it. That’s the “bigger picture”. Football is a game of a collective, not of individual performances, and to fixate on individual performances and extrapolate them to success is to ignore that World Cup success is not measured by moments, but by scorelines, points and results.
When you squint and zoom in, even more failures – both at a micro- and macro-level – are stunningly obvious. Let’s simply brush over a few.
- The entire cycle was all wrong. Uli Stielike should never have been hired. Obviously something quite easy to say in hindsight, but his scant résumé and relative inexperience, combined with inexperience in the world of modern tactics, made him a questionable selection at best. Though the Asian Games saw Korea ride luck, quality players and a disciplined defense (we’ll give Uli some credit for the latter) to the finals, the World Cup qualifying cycle was a different animal. Stielike lost the players quickly, lost the plot tactically even quicker, and the KFA, hell-bent on trying to protect the integrity of the cycle, removed itself the power to sack managers.
- Shin Tae-yong needed to be reigned in. Instead, he was given carte blanche, and became a victim of his own ideas. He went haywire with tactical adaptation after tactical adaptation, never once naming an identical XI at any point during his tenure. He should have known the players better as a former assistant manager of the team, but instead treated it like a misguided project in FIFA 18 Ultimate Team, mixing and matching shapes, systems and selections so often that no chemistry could ever have been developed.
- Player selections were highly questionable. Ji and Suk left at home, while we called up 10 defenders? Get out… it’s almost unheard of. Nearly 60% of the squad was spent on defenders or goalkeepers. And building the entire defense around the pathetically over-aggressive Jang Hyun-soo, who had already shown his ineptitude against the likes of Japan, cost the team heavily.
- Tactical approaches were wrong, misguided or kept for too long. Too conservative against Sweden, and trying to break on the counter with Kim Shin-wook? Failing to ever ramp up the pressure on Mexico with a meaningful attacking substitution?
- The team struggled badly for fitness. It’s hard to tell how much was the players’ general fatigue prior to the season, and how much was the controversial high conditioning regimen taking a toll on the players. Koo Ja-cheol, for example, spoke to how “exhausted” he was and more or less criticized the plan. But the heavy touches, lazy passing and lack of incisiveness didn’t only come from a lack of personnel – it also came from a lack of freshness in the squad.
Granted, a plethora of misfortunes in endless succession did little to help the teams’ chances. Being drawn in a ridiculously difficult group did not help the side. An assortment of knocks and player fatigue did not help the side. Injuries and lack of fitness to two veteran wingers, a veteran forward, a young midfielder with an excellent season in France, a promising centre-back and both first-choice left-backs did not help the side. However, it is not as if a perfect, well-rehearsed plan was unraveled by injuries. Instead, a fragile potpourri of ideas were exposed by rocky waters and inopportune circumstances.
Beating Germany is indeed a massive ego-boost, and one that speaks to the strength of what a resilient, well-trained side can look like. And the recent, astronomic rise of Cho Hyun-woo proves that Korean football, and K League football, is not down for the count. We had good things, and positive headlines, which is more than we perhaps may have expected.
However, Korean football (and the K League) must, after what is very clearly a failed World Cup, urgently and unreservedly learn to rise from fiery embers instead of just sitting there in a dust-like substances for yet another 4 year cycle. Fundamental changes are required, from the grassroots to the senior teams. Systems must be taught, philosophies must be tested and re-tested, and new ideas adapted to the current reality of modern football. And yes, fans must attend domestic games, instead of groveling in their at times feigned indignation. Until then – and only then – our World Cups will continue to be ones where we seek the silver lining rather than enjoy obvious successes. And silver linings are not successes. Period.
We can plug our ears and try to forget the team’s apathy and absence of ideas, or we can demand better (without abusing players on social media or with supermarket products). We can gloat at how Mexico loved us and gave us free enchiladas for a week, or we can analyze why it is that our only approach against any of these big teams was to nullify and pass to Son. We can call one breakout star, one player exhibiting passion and leadership and a few decent substitute minutes from a 20 year-old success, or we can ask ourselves why it is that the unit on the pitch never gelled like Iran, or was able to balance structure and goal-scoring like Japan. We can stick our heads in the sand, or simply state the obvious: this World Cup was a failure. Nothing changes that. And it’s actually stunning that we’d settle for this phony success.
Because as true supporters of the Korean game, it would be simply a dereliction of our duty to settle for this and to demand anything less.