There’s a mixture of emotions in Tashkent tonight – knowing full well that there is everything to play for in this final match in the 3rd and most important round of World Cup Qualification. Both teams have been struggling for a number of months now, both needing a result to book that (next to) last ticket to Russia 2018. Uzbekistan v Korea was shaping up to be an epic showdown. Except that all who witnessed the 1st half saw a less than epic match. It was in fact – abysmal football. Inerrant passing, dispossessed dribbling, players running amok – it was Korea v Iran anti-football – but even worse. Had it not been for Uzbekistan competing for the worst team on the pitch, Korea would’ve been sunk. Uzbekistan even rattled the post. Nerves were shaken at the Tavern and for Taeguk Warrior supporters worldwide, yet another shambolic performance from Korea -so much so that despite coming close for Hwang hitting a crossbar in the 2nd minute and Son’s shot careening off the post in the dying embers before halftime, there was a growing feeling that the turning point for the utter destitution of Korean football (that gradual decline we’ve been witnessing for quite some time) was here at last. A hypothetical Uzbek goal was all that was needed to send Korea either into the 4th round of WCQ quagmire, or worse yet -with Syria getting goals in Tehran, getting knocked out altogether and missing out in the big game for the first time since 1982. Seeing Koo Ja-Cheol getting sent in for an injured and ineffectual Jang Hyun-Soo near the half, that perhaps inadvertently gave Shin’s side a reboot.
During the break, Shin Tae-Yong reorganized his confident-less squad and in the 2nd half, Korean football was ticking again, some would even go as far as to give a glimmer of looking somewhat resuscitated. Successful take ons, swashbuckling runs, fluid passing was back in fashion and Korea was enjoying a run of form and keeping the Uzbeks on their heels. Chances were taken and shots starting firing in. I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s take a step back and look at the starting XI, quite a different composite and formation from last Thursday at Seoul.
South Korea starting XI vs Uzbekistan pic.twitter.com/bPtD4SN699
— Jae (이재혁) (@ArmchairRegista) September 5, 2017
Shin lines up a 3-4-3 formation – but again without Ki as the midfield glue, had trouble getting out of the gate. It didn’t help that Jung Woo-young and Jang Hyun-Soo was passing almost directly to Uzbek players (Jang also showing off his lack of finishing in front on net – for the 2nd time in 2 games had a great opportunity with a corner kick and sent a shot in front wide. Lee Keun-Ho and Son Heung-Min weren’t doing themselves any favors getting dispossessed often. Ko Yo-Han and Kim Min-Woo both were ineffectual in the first half, however both improved in their wide roles as the game wore on, more successful than not in moving the ball down the flanks. As we mentioned before, Koo came in for Jang and without coincidence, the 2nd half looked much brighter for team Korea. Shin’s next move was to replace Kwon (who was a bit anonymous and partly responsible for some of the team’s atrocious passing, particularly in the final third) with the stalwart veteran Yeom Ki-Hun. Good build up plays resulted in shots coming in from Kim Min-Woo, Hwang Hee-Chan, Lee Keun-Ho, and Son Heung-Min. Uzbekistan was losing the narrative and conceding more space for the charging Koreans to maneuver in. Each shot seemingly closer to goal than the last. Shin will have plenty to defend in his first two games in charge, but one improvement from the Iran match: he didn’t opt for the Kim Shin-Wook “Plan B.” And yet, there was still no goal from all of that work. Sensing Lee Keun-ho’s ineptitude and poor touches on the ball through out the match, Shin pulled the trigger to his “Plan C” which conceptually be arguably as bad an option as “Plan B”: in the 77th minute Lee Dong-Guk, the 38 year old came on for Lee Keun-Ho. Korean Footballers Abroad jokingly/or seriously tweeted:
We go down to 10 men as the ghost of Lee Dong Guk comes on
— Korean Footballers (@KoreaFootAbroad) September 5, 2017
The one job he was sent to do was to score – and the old man did just as he did against Iran, he wasted his opportunities. Hwang lofted the ball to the “Lion King” – bringing him one on one with Uzbekistan’s keeper. He hit it straight at him. The ball rebounded to Son, his shot with several defenders swarming -went wide. Probably Korea’s best chance of the night. And with that, armed with the knowledge that the next goal would likely win World Cup qualifying with an eye on the Syria/Iran game, Uzbekistan countered with all their might, earning a knuckle biting free kick in Korea’s half with the dying seconds of stoppage time. Korea cleared it and the whistle blew. FT with a scoreless draw – Shin’s 2nd game in charge – no goals scored despite numerous chances, but no goals conceded. However it still wasn’t completely over: drama shifts over to Tehran as Syria had been ahead – shockingly the only team in the 3rd round to score on Iran – only to see Iran equalize. That game had 2 more minutes left. For Korea, the calculus to qualify depended on Iran’s ability to defend and prevent Syria from scoring 2 more times – otherwise they would be the 3rd place team and Syria would leapfrog them to automatically qualify for Russia. For Uzbekistan, after not seizing the opportunity to get 3 points at home against Korea – drawing instead nil-nil – their hopes and chances for whatever might await in the 4rd round was simply for that scoreline to remain. Then this happened less than a minute after the FT whistle in Tashkent as a hush drew for Uzbek supporters:
Holy smokes, Syria just scored in stoppage time in Iran—and as it stands it's Syria to the playoffs, South Korea to WC & Uzbekistan out.
— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) September 5, 2017
A miraculous last minute 2-2 comeback away in Tehran for the war strapped Syrians – a very tough place to play and the impossible happened. Syria remain alive in WCQ for round 4 to face Australia -and for the Uzbeks, for what seems like the 3rd or 4th time in a row, their hopes once again dashed. A decent squad in Asia…but missing out in the big show. Across Uzbekistan you could hear the sounds of hearts breaking.
For the Koreans, the Tehran result still meant qualifying – for the 9th consecutive time and 10th overall (the incredible haniljeon victory that qualified them for World Cup 1954). Handshakes and hugs and…what is that feeling exactly? A sense of relief? Or is it that queasy feeling that history is repeating itself, that Korea once again falls backwards (stealing Tavern headline from 2013) and still manage to qualify for the World Cup ? Two lackluster performances, two 0:0 draws, missed opportunities and a scoring drought – leaving it to Iran in the closing seconds and facing a team in even worse form to help Korea in barely eeking out a 3rd round automatic qualification in Group A. Glass half full: qualifying is qualifying and Korea did earn it, thanks to earlier results from round 3 and points – rather unconvincing points and yet difficult nail biting points in the scoreless draws. Another odd factor: though it might not ‘feel’ like Korea is capable of scoring these days, the statistics from Round 3 surprisingly shows Korea as the team having scored the MOST amount of goals in Group A. I’ll have to get the Tavern Statistician to draw up who scored and where they took place. But what about Iran? They were good in terms of getting results and notching first in the group, but their strength wasn’t in goal scoring but a nearly rock solid defense that didn’t allow any goals in Round 3 (except against Syria somehow). Many of their matches ended 1:0. Glass half empty: plenty of empty in this cup. And too many talking points to support this from this Round 3 to dredge up at the moment.
The story of how Korea will do in Russia 2018 is still unwritten and it would be unwise to write off team Korea – though they need drastic improvements to avoid a repeat of what happened in Brazil in 2014. If you said Korea looks incapable of going deep in the tournament, you would have little trouble finding others like minded in that assessment. But 9 months is a ways from now. I can’t predict the future, but if certain factors were to fall in place, say a Lee Seung-Woo tearing it up in Serie A, Suk Hyun-Jun making his umpteenth comeback in his career by making waves in Ligue 1, and K-League + other Asia based players finding their groove (dare we say a Jeonbuk-ish defense that is so on the same wavelength with the benefit of being in the same club system, the defensive problems from Round 3 may seem like a distant memory), or some other x-factor in this upcoming season -the perceived low expectations for this current squad may be the ace in the hole kryptonite that brings down unsuspecting ‘giants’ in the upcoming World Cup.
Where does Korea go from here?
For now, there is a gap in what the Korean public sees as progress in Korean football and the teetering infrastructure that supports development of football in Korea. The remarkable accomplishments of World Cup 2002 and advancing from group stage in the 2010 World Cup is something taken for granted by many in Korea, all while K-League stadiums grow weeds and the cricket sounds grow louder with each passing season. That horrendous pitch at Seoul World Cup stadium is in some ways, more indicative and damning of the state of Korean football than the team that failed to break down a 10 man Iran last Thursday. That K-League revenue stream at the ticket office and TV revenue is drying up at a time when the J-League and CSL are accruing increasing largess of TV broadcasting money is absurd and ludicrous, especially in light of the number of Asian Championship titles won by Korean clubs over the years. I have to wonder, where are the future Park Ji-Sungs, Cha Bum-Kuns or Lee Young-Pyos going to come from when the average freshman K-Leaguer is playing to a paltry salary and a nearly empty stadium every week? It’s difficult to say whether Korea having barely qualified for the World Cup represents an opportunity to move forward or a continuation of mediocrity and a slow decline with each World Cup cycle. Perhaps not qualifying might have given that shock to the system for the public to demand a reboot and a shot in the arm to Korean football? I’m talking about reforms that could give youth proper professional development opportunities rather than amateur college football (a failed model that also sets back progress for young players in the US). A chance to restructure ownership of K-League clubs so that they can invest and organically grow back it’s support base – in turn better marketing hand in hand with an MLS inspired move to smaller sleeker and sensible stadiums to improve atmosphere and attendance and better TV viewership. Sustainable revenue could allow clubs to compete, buy foreign players and offer competitive salaries for Koreans leaving for better pay in less competitive environments in China and the Middle East. Perhaps a plausible compromise/solution is more possible to the mandatory military conscription issue that has stalled Korean footballers in their prime, seeing how people power toppled a corrupt Park Guen-hye administration (yes, North Korea is still a problem, thus deferred military service can be a realistic alternative that allows Korean football to be internationally competitive and strikes a sensible balance with national security concerns). That’s a whole lot of changes and it can’t happen overnight – but it has to start somewhere -or the decline that we’re witnessing will continue.
But Korea did qualify. That effect can alert the country – as in “hey, all you fairweather baseball fans…Korea is in the World Cup again. Dig out your Red Devils support gear from the attic and dust it off. Get ready to have a party.” But what I really hope is that regardless of how Korea does next June – if people really do support the KNT now and in the future – then for Koreans to find their K-League team and rediscover them. Read K-League United and get fired up. Their blog is killing it and have scored impressive interviews with FC Seoul’s Dejan and other big name K-Leaguers. Find ways to support – if you are in Korea and your local club is hosting an Asian Champions League game, don’t neglect them (see Japan and China – they’re coming out in droves to support their teams- they got flags – they got drums – they’re out gunning Koreans in voice and song). However if no reforms happen, if the decline in attendance and everything else goes on unabated – the calculus for the dwindling youth population (apparently not enough young couples are having a sexy time – get on that!) is that more and more will come to the conclusion that there is no future in playing football -at least not in Korea. Should that time happen, Shakespeare’s line in Julius Cesare will be apt: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves.”
HWANG HEE-CHAN was my man of the match —
more to come later…. Workrate, moving the ball around, dribbling through the opposition, passing, shots on goal, he did everything but score. Korea looked more likely than the hosts in finding the back of the net and were perhaps unlucky not to do so. Had Korea gotten a goal, Hwang would’ve been responsible in either creating it or finishing it himself.
Son Heung-Min continues to struggle for the national team —which can only mean one thing: an even better season for Tottenham than last year’s record breaking season (which saw Son break Cha Bum-Kun’s 30 year old goal scoring record for a Korean playing top flight Euro ball). Seriously though, Son has carried his own mental blocks and demons since last summer’s Olympics, failing to advance to a medal game and a lost opportunity at getting military exemption. He addressed the media post match and had confidence that the offense will improve in time for next summer’s World Cup.
Korea is the only team outside UEFA/COMNEBOL to be present in the World Cup since 1986. Korea’s 9th consecutive time qualifying sets a record for a team from the AFC. Augsburg and Tottenham sent congratulatory tweets to Koo and Son respectively.
— 대한축구협회(KFA) (@theKFA) September 5, 2017
Be on the lookout: I’ve got a post I’ve been hinting at for some time about Son Heung-Min, something the European press has gotten wrong concerning his prospects of earning military exemption via medal win. I’m hoping this will get published in the next 2 weeks. I’ll also write about interesting data from the world of US baseball that actually has some relevancy with KPA’s like Son, Hwang, Kwon Chang-Hoon and others plying the trade in Europe -and how long distance traveling effects performances when called up for the national team in games played in Asia. Stay tuned. In the meantime, we can expect the KFA to line up respectable friendlies in October for the next international break to tune up for Russia 2018.
OH yeah, I almost forgot: last Thursday when Korea faced Iran, the Tavern turned five years old. The Tavern started slinging drinks after an inspiring Olympic Bronze medal win over Japan in August 2012 – that was when Park Chu-Young took on 4 Japanese defenders in the first half to net a jaw dropping goal and Koo Ja-Cheol scored a cheeky 2nd half goal to win military exemption. Ki, Koo, Ji all continue to play in Europe thanks in part to a hunk of metal that lifted the shackles of military conscription from limiting their careers. Perhaps it’s time for Nam Tae-Hee to join his compatriots in Europe too?