The Asian Games are around the corner in August, and though you may not be super invested in the kabaddi, dragon boating or the paragliding (on second thought, that’s actually strangely intriguing…), the men’s football tournament is essential, as it provides players with a shot at military exemption. But no more on that – we have a very special article on this site in the coming days on just that topic. Anyway, though the competition is a U23 tournament, 3 over-age “wild cards” get a shot. Let’s take a look at the possible candidates.
After being a part of the U23 Olympics side in Rio that fell at the quarter-final stage, the 2014 and 2018 World Cup disappointments and the Asian Games final defeat, Son Heung-min is still looking for that ultimate glory in a Korean national team shirt. Though he was unable to attend the last Asian Games due to Leverkusen not letting him go, the KFA and Spurs reached an agreement to let Son play in this tournament.
The 26 year-old will terrorize players at this level, and look for him to be the focal point of the attack and the tournament’s main crowd-getter. However, of concern to Spurs will be that he will go into the season in a very unorthodox way, with only a month or so recovery before he’s back playing competitive minutes again.
Status: Going (Kim Hak-bum has confirmed)
Completely off the radar until the World Cup, Cho Hyun-woo somehow made goalkeeping a problem for Kim Hak-bum by virtue of his stellar performances in Russia. With European scouts (Crystal Palace seems to be one) keen on attracting Cho’s services, the media thrust the Daegu FC netminder into the conversation. Though there’s no denying his talent, athleticism and confidence, Cho may not actually mend any weaknesses in the side. The two more established goalkeepers – Song Bum-keun, a starter at 20 for K League 1 leaders Jeonbuk Hyundai, and Kang Hyun-mu, a starter at 23 for two seasons at Pohang, were thought to be easy shoo-ins for the Indonesia-based tournament. They also represent one of the most solid goalkeeping duos in a generation, with Song having European potential of his own.
The question for Kim then becomes about what his 20-man squad (of which there are only two goalkeepers) will be about. Will the overage players be used to fix weaker positions, or be full of inspirational leaders who are on bought time for securing military exemption? In any case, recent reports indicate Kim may be leaning towards selecting “Dae Gea”.
Recent media reports that Kim Hak-bum is taking a serious look at Hwang Ui-jo raised a lot of eyebrows. Despite popping in and out of the senior national team in the earlier stages of Korea’s qualification voyage, Hwang, a centre forward never really settled into that discussion long-term. His inclusion in the first place was sparked by a superb 2015 K League season in which he finished just a goal off the Golden Boot. The next couple years were harder to discern Hwang’s form – he wasn’t able to carry the team with double digit goal tallies, but Seongnam as a whole slumped and were relegated to the second division. Hwang jumped ship halfway through the 2017 K League Challenge season to Gamba Osaka, where he is the top Asian goalscorer in Japan this season (4th overall).
For those who haven’t seen him, Hwang is a mixed bag. Though I haven’t watched him in a couple years, his strengths – finding space in the box, good work rate and pace – are compounded by his shortcomings – always, always offside and also quite a wasteful finisher. Hwang blows hot and cold, and it appears he seems to be rediscovering some of that 2015 form in Japan (on a terrible Gamba side).
Why is he in the conversation? Simple. Kim Hak-bum coached him in Seongnam. That’s about it. And it’s hard to see what he brings to the squad, especially with the 22 year-old Hwang Hee-chan boasting a similar skill set. If he goes to Indonesia with the squad, he’s only got his former manager to thank. I guess it’s understandable that Kim would like to work with a known quantity and reward one of his boys, but . . .
This guy still exists. Now at the relegated French club Troyes, but soon moving to Angers, Suk Hyun-jun’s journey man career has been documented on this site, and is an example of pure perseverance, self-belief and hard work. His breakout season at Vitoria Setubal a couple years back led to that big move to Porto, but he failed to impress at Portugal’s biggest club or at Trabzonspor on a subsequent loan. In Ligue 1, however, Suk found his stride. In many ways, he’s just a classic centre-forward. Tall, strong, elbows up, and able to finish with his head or put his foot through a shot. He’s also somewhat clumsy and loses composure on otherwise easy finishes at times, however. Still, many raised eyebrows when Shin Tae-yong didn’t select him or Ji Dong-won for the World Cup squad, not least because he brought a more broad skill-set than Kim Shin-wook.
In certain respect, that seems to be a strange problem with Suk Hyun-jun. Though throughout his career he has had a consistent number of inconsistent patches, for the national team he either goes invisible, or isn’t used. The former was evident in the early stages of AFC qualifying, particularly against Qatar in October 2016 where he barely saw any of the ball at was replaced at half-time. The latter was evident in the Olympics, when he played just 77 minutes of that tournament despite being one of only two forward options with Hwang Hee-chan.
When you take that into account, I suppose it’s fair that he’s not the number 1 option, but any Korean able to cut their teeth in Europe probably can bring something more compelling against U23 defenders. Still, buzz around the potential of his selection has dropped off a fair amount.
Status: Increasingly unlikely
Any goddamn fullback
This side’s major weakness is that it lacks a secured fullback – we saw this also in Shin Tae-yong’s 2016 Olympics side which similarly was sparse on options for the wide defenders. In that respect, though decent centre-backs and goal-keepers are emerging in this generation (shoutout Kim Min-jae), it’s another indicator of a structural bias in Korean football. Young players want to be midfielders or forwards, not defenders. It’s not for no reason that Lee Yong played all 270 minutes of both the 2014 and 2018 World Cups – no disrespect to him, but our fullback options have been very poor for quite some time.
Still, there is a thought that an overage fullback from the K League could be called, especially on the right side. Hamburger SV II left-back Seo Young-jae will probably secure the spot on the left, but on the right the options seem particularly uncertain. Daejeon Citizen’s Park Jae-woo played in January’s AFC U23 Championship, but he wasn’t called up to last month’s training camp. Incheon’s Kim Jin-ya may start, but he’s more attack-minded and vulnerable on defense.
The sad truth is, however, that there’s no one K League player crying out to take the place. All of the recent KNT’s full-back options have either served, are serving or an ineligible to serve in the military (Ko Yo-han dropped out of middle school).
Status: Who knows.
A word of caution
It’s important to remember that anything can happen at the Asian Games. Korea’s recent U23 Championship in January ended in disaster, with the side seemingly being favorites for gold (semi-final vs Uzbekistan, potential final vs Vietnam) but choking horribly in extra time against the Uzbeks. In truth, without these over-age players + the European based youngsters such as Paik Seung-ho, the recently returned Lee Jin-hyeon, Lee Seung-woo, Hwang Hee-chan . . . this side isn’t imposingly impressive.
In other words, if this is to be easy cruising for Korea, it will most definitely be because of the three overage players Kim Hak-bum will bring to Jakarta this August.