The World Cup is coming, here you can find out a little bit about the players making the trip to Brazil.
Name: Hong Jeong-Ho (홍정호)
Senior Caps: 23
Club: FC Augsburg (Germany)
Hong Myeong-Bo’s former U23 captain, Hong Jeong-Ho is a player that has long been touted as the next big defender for Korea. A frequent fixture in both the U20 and U23 teams, it wasn’t long until senior bosses gave him a chance to shine at the top. Hong Jeong-Ho made his senior debut in Cho Kwang-Rae’s first game in charge, a friendly against Nigeria in 2010, coming in as a second half substitute for Kwak Tae-Hwi. At that time Hong Jeong-Ho had just turned 21 and only had half a season of professional football under his belt. The following few years were start-stop. Long-term injuries sidelined him for several months, and crucially Hong missed out on the 2012 Olympic campaign, thus not getting the highly desired military exemption. Hong also missed time due to the K League match fixing scandal that rocked the league in 2011. A colleague at Jeju United had approached Hong to fix a match between them and FC Seoul (and gang members deposited about $4,000 into his bank account). Hong refused and sent the money back, but he still missed games for Jeju and the national team while he was investigated. But, since returning Hong has been solid, and last year he moved to German club FC Augsburg. He’s never been the automatic starter at Augsburg, but he’s been a reliable third-choice centerback, and has impressed in a number of games.
For Korea, Hong Jeong-Ho tends to play as the deeper, “sweeper” centerback. Hong also usually takes any individual man-marking duties against the opposition center forward (assuming they play with a lone striker). Hong isn’t blazing fast, but he has decent pace, is good in the air, and times his challenges well. Hong exudes calmness, and seems very composed despite his relatively young age.
Hong Jeong-Ho is a lock to start at the World Cup, unless he’s tragically bitten by the injury bug once again. At just 24 and already playing in a top league in Europe, Hong’s future looks quite bright, but there is that little problem of mandatory military service. Hong will have another chance to earn that exemption just after the World Cup when the 2014 Asian Games are held in Incheon. Hong would need to get called up as an overage player, and get permission from Augsburg to go (the tournament will be held in Sept-Oct).
Name: Kim Young-Gwon (김영권)
Senior Caps: 19
Club: Guangzhou Evergrande (China)
Supposedly Marcello Lippi once recommended him to Sir Alex Ferguson (while he was still at United), and recently Lippi told reporters that as long as he was at Guangzhou Evergrande, Kim Young-Gwon was going nowhere. High praise indeed. And as time has gone on, it’s been the slightly less heralded of the two young central defenders that may have the bigger future. Like his partner in defense, Kim Young-Gwon has been a regular for Korea at youth levels, and crucially, Kim Young-Gwon did play in the 2012 Olympics and get that military exemption. A regular in the all-conquering Guangzhou Evergrande side that did the league/Asia double last season, Kim Young-Gwon would seem poised to move on to greater things. Again, like Hong Jeong-Ho, Kim Young-Gwon made his senior debut in Cho Kwang-Rae’s national team managerial debut against Nigeria in 2010. The third defender in Cho’s experimental 3-4-3 formation, Kim started alongside Kwak Tae-Hwi and Lee Jung-Soo.
Broadly speaking, Kim Young-Gwon is an excellent foil to Hong Jeong-Ho. Kim is a fairly robust defender who likes to come out and challenge for the ball, and plays a more aggressive game compared to his counterpart. Kim has a strong left-foot that enables him to act as a playmaking centerback at times (although his accuracy is hit or miss), and even as a long-range free kick taker.
Lippi has said Kim will stay in China, but it only seems a matter of time until some European side swoops in with an offer they can’t refuse. Kim Young-Gwon will certainly start at the World Cup, and a good showing there might just be the spark that gets those offers coming in. Just 24, Kim Young-Gwon would seem to have a long, and bright, future ahead of him for Korea.
Name: Hwang Seok-Ho (황석호)
Senior Caps: 3
Club: Sanfrecce Hiroshima (Japan)
Less heralded than either of his defensive peers, Hwang Seok-Ho proved to be a valuable member of the Olympic team in 2012, stepping into the space left by Hong Jeong-Ho when he was injured. Hwang partnered up with Kim Young-Gwon for all of Korea’s Olympic matches in a defense that allowed five goals in all (with three coming in one match against Brazil). Hwang has yet to make his mark on the senior side, having made just three appearances thus far. At the club level, Hwang has spent his time in Japan with defending J1 champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
A versatile defender. A center back by nature, Hwang is capable of playing at right back as well, as he’s done with his club. Hwang is a solid defender, but doesn’t really excel in any one area. Honestly, there’s not too much to say about Hwang’s game. He solid, but not excellent. Reliable, but not spectacular.
Hwang Seok-Ho’s versatility is probably his biggest asset, and that will likely keep him in the frame for years to come. It will be interesting (although hopefully unnecessary) to see who Hong Myeong-Bo would prefer should one of his normal central defenders be unavailable. Hwang is a trusted player from the U-23 team, but he is the most inexperienced player in the group. One suspects that Hwang will always be more of a squad player for the national team, given the quality of the players ahead of him (who are also the same age), but he should get his chances in smaller friendlies and regional tournaments.
Name: Kwak Tae-Hwi (곽태휘)
Senior Caps: 33
Club: Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia)
The “old man” of the group, Kwak Tae-Hwi is looking to finally make his World Cup debut after unfortunately missing out the 2010 World Cup due to injury. A journeyman who has bounced around from club-to-club over the years, Kwak has spent time in Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. Kwak initially made his senior debut back in 2008 against Chile. Since then, he has never really been the consistent first choice center back, but he’s always been in and around the squad. His most consistent run came under Choi Kang-Hee who eventually made the defender his team captain.
A strong, physical center back, Kwak Tae-Hwi can do a decent individual man marking job against a more traditional number nine, but he certainly lacks pace and agility, so quicker forwards and attacking midfielders can cause him problems. Kwak’s biggest asset come June will likely be the experiences he has had over the course of his career, along with the simple fact that he is a sunbae to the rest of the (much younger) centerbacks. A veteran presence in the changing room, and on the bench.
Kwak Tae-Hwi himself has acknowledged that he is not first-choice nor is he likely to get much, if any, time on the pitch. But he is happy to be the veteran presence, and maintains that he’ll give the younger guys a little push on the training ground. At 32, Kwak Tae-Hwi’s career is likely coming to a close. 2014 will likely be his last involvement with the senior side, and Al Hilal will reportedly not offer him a contract extension when his current deal expires. Kwak could continue on at the club level should he want to continue though as I’m sure there will be clubs in Korea and elsewhere that would welcome a veteran like him to their squad.