17 for 2017: Humiliating Defeat – China 1-0 Korea

Korea’s dominance against China has been so consistent that a term has been coined by the Chinese media – 恐韩症, which roughly translates to Koreaphobia – to denote how the Chinese NT just could not win. China managed to win a EAFF match against us in 2010 before the World Cup, but as of 2016 they had yet to beat us in an official FIFA match. Somewhat appropriately that streak snapped on the 23rd of March where China defeated us 1-0 in front of a raucous home crowd at the height of political tensions (THAAD, sanctions, etc.). Of all the humiliating moments we’ve had this year (Syria, Uzbek, Morocco/Russia, Qatar loss, etc.) I think it’s fair to say this one might be among the worst, thus its inclusion in 17 for 2017.

If we’re making you re-live some really bad memories, our apologies.

Before the match:

Going in we had beaten China 3-2, drew Syria 0-0, beat Qatar 3-2, lost 1-0 to Iran, and defeated Uzbekistan 2-1. It was that time of year when we were increasingly starting to get frustrated by Stielike and his weird tactics (before the final round started at least we were undefeated), but not quite at the point where everyone was calling for his head. So even though Son Heungmin was suspended (yellow card accumulation), and even with solid evidence that Lippi had visibly improved the game of the Chinese NT, the general consensus was that this should be a walk in the park.

There was also quite a bit of political drama going into this match too. In addition to the then-recent impeachment of Park Geunhye and the whole controversy surrounding THAAD, there were rumors of China limiting the number of tickets that could be sold to Korean supporters, promptly triggering an angry netizen response. There were legitimate concerns of violence in the stands as well. In the end, if memory serves me right, 1/3 of the tickets went to Korean supporters, while the Chinese government hired extra security and nothing dramatic ended up happening.

For a fantastic Q&A preview by Tim and Jamie McIlroy of wildeastfootball.net visit this link; Tim predicted 2-1 Korea, but wisely noted that with the recent form and the presence of disaster-prone players like Hong Jeongho and Kim Kihee, “I’m a bit more nervous about this Hanjoongjeon (Korea-China game) than I probably ever have been about a game between our two nations.”

 

The match:

I’m not going to lie I saw this and wanted to go to bed (but hey it was second semester senior year so I ended up watching it).

In this lineup, pretty much every player played one of their poorest games for the NT. Lee JH and Ko Myungjin actually did nothing; JDW missed some shots on target, and the entire defense just could not get it together.

Yet in some respects we could call this match the resurgence of KNT Ki Sungyong. He was on a really poor run of form both for the NT and for Swansea but the second half of this game Ki showed us why he’s our captain (or should be). It’s still a mystery how Ki seems to have this mental on-off switch – sometimes he’s just plain awful, and sometimes he leads the attack, dribbles up the pitch, and actually creates chances. Koo Jacheol also tried to get involved in the game, though as he often does, he faded hard in the second half.

Though it’s hard to conclude from the recent EAFF Cup that we’ve finally figured out how to use Kim Shinwook (because let’s face it Japan was god-awful), in this game we saw Kim Shinwook at his most ineffective. Despite the team reverting to “let’s longball to KSW,” KSW also failed to create any second-ball chances or any chances for that matter.

On one hand I regret watching the game just because of how dull it was, I think this was a wakeup call that China has improved tremendously. Where was the China that had always parked the bus against the likes of Korea/Japan (and failed)? Have you ever seen China pressuring really high up the pitch, forcing pass errors from Kwon Suntae / Ki Sungyong? Yes, the result and the content of this match is attributable to us sucking + them executing a game plan to the best of their abilities, but even that is an accomplishment. China in the past had been pushovers in the Asian scene, often breaking down completely in front of even the easiest of opponents. But with the rise of the CSL and the insane money going into developing futbol in the nation, the Chinese NT has gotten so much better and will only continue to get better (ok maybe it’s not because of all the CSL money – it could just be Lippi).

Just look to the recent EAFF tournament for even more evidence – at times their entire team was in our half, something Korean fans had never seen until recently. The media even made the declaration that China was no longer afraid of Korea, and indeed, we have stooped to the low point of making Koreaphobia a thing of the past.

For a more indepth analysis check out Jae’s tactical recap to see visually what exactly went down in one of our worst performances in 2017.

 

Looking back:

The China loss was the beginning of the end for Stielike. It was actually one of the only times he ever apologized to the fans (he sure didn’t apologize after losing to Qatar), and even though we did beat Syria 1-0 off a lucky header just five days later, the next round of WCQ’s led by Stielike – the 3-2 loss to Qatar – led to his sacking.

I would hope a loss to China got the KFA to think for once – Roy put it best in his post-match recap:

This match will go down as one of Korea’s most humiliating losses. Not that any game against China should be taken for granted but Lippi’s team was, on paper, beatable and should have been one in the win column for Korea. One can pontificate on the larger significance of this moment as narratives are being formed; the possible turning point in which Korea, given it’s own citizen’s apathy over it’s own domestic professional league and the resulting appalling financial status that pays it’s players some of the poorest wages in Asia (despite it’s dominance over the years in the Asian Champions League).  Others can point to the political and financial capital invested in China’s own football development, installed in it’s school curriculum – and the money that’s now being spent that’s attracting the attention of the footballing world at large.  More topically, Stielike’s selections, team management and appalling tactics has to be called into account. Prior to the game, many had raised eyebrows over his choice to lead the attack. Sure, Son was unavailable, but why not Hwang Hee-Chan?  That player fits with the other attacking midfielders he has and plays to their strengths.  Then there’s the Wookie. Sometimes the plan to go super direct works – but it’s a gamble and not a good one at that -especially if defenders can read that option and Korea decides to hoof it up somewhere in the vicinity of Kim as frequently as they did today. Whether or not Uli and sacking him (a la Jurgen Klinsman for the US late in their hexagonal CONCACAF WCQ stage) is something to discuss will be tricky given the lack of time left to qualify for Russia 2018.

But given this turmoil, as the saying goes, the other side of the coin is opportunity. Regrouping, renewal, and resetting the stage for Korea to regain their footing.  Perhaps not qualifying would do a world of good for the Korean program, as painful and humiliating as it might be. An emerging competitive footballing nation in China is not the worst thing to happen to Korea. It must force Korea not to be complacent with their national program -and not simply take for granted all their internal football systems, from youth development to the sustainability of the domestic professional leagues.  Korea has been a dominant footballing presence in Asia. For it to remain as one going forward, it has to adapt to the reality of China breathing down it’s neck.

Jae even went as far as to suggest that it might be good for Korea to miss out on a WC for once – a sentiment that has been shared among many fans as of late.

Well somehow we made it again thanks to Uzbekistan choking (again), and we can only hope Shin Taeyong watched these games and promised to himself not to make the same mistakes Stielike did. Though he is still fielding (and captaining!!! WTF) Jang Hyunsoo so hmm .. maybe not?