1461 days, or 4 years, seems like forever of a time. In soccer, 4 years is one cycle, one window, and in some ways, one generation of players in this ever changing competitive landscape. The World Cup as its currently constituted gives us an opportunity to evaluate and create opportunities for the current squad and the future generation of players. With World Cup qualifying (which usually starts about a year after the previous World Cup ends) set to start for Korea, we will look at ways Korea can maximize this window to further grow the talent they have currently while developing the younger players.
World Cup Qualifying
The 2 year journey to the World Cup starts in September in which Korea is fully expected to advance to the final round of qualification. The first and most important thing for the team is to have a consistent and dedicated coach to lead the team through these matches. Bento has had a mixed bag of results in recent friendlies with a less than stellar performance at the Asian Cup. Whether it is Bento or another coach, a consistent voice, strategy and vision is important for continuity within the team. Secondly, it would benefit the team long term by giving younger players more experience. It goes against the Korean culture in a way, but sometimes you just have to put your talented young players in the fire so they can have those chances to fail and succeed again. Especially in the early games, where Korea will be heavily favored in most of them, it would benefit Bento and the entire squad to be able to evaluate the entirety of the players and not just the ones that usually get the playing time. An example would be to call up Lee Kang In, the star of the recent U-20 World Cup, and give him some minutes. This would also start to create a culture where the players feel they are more motivated to play better because they will play based purely on the quality of their work and not just seniority.
Junior Tournaments and Military Exemption
The Olympics take place 2 years before and after the World Cup. It is also a U-23 team (with 3 over age wild cards). This gives a perfect opportunity for the KFA to evaluate the younger players (maybe some that come from the previous U-20 World Cup?) and to see who can contribute to the ongoing World Cup qualifying matches and the proceeding World Cup tournament. As mentioned, the U-20 World Cup goes hand in hand with the Olympics. If you think about it, the U-20 team for the most part can feed into the Olympic team and then subsequently feed in to the World Cup senior squads. Of course, having a clear vision, strategy and tactics for all these levels is important and that starts with Bento.
Korea is unique in many ways but the military service for men (a little less than 2 years) is very unique to the world. For professional athletes, there are 2 ways to get an exemption, (although there have been exceptions to the rules in the past): 1) win a gold medal in the Asian Games and 2) win any medal at the Olympics. As mentioned above, the Olympics, in my opinion, are very important in evaluation for the future senior team. The Asian Games, which also take place every 4 years (but on the same year as the World Cup), is also a U-23 squad with 3 over age wild cards. The level of competition is lower than the Olympics but in some ways it is more important because of the higher likelihood of earning a military exemption (as opposed to winning a medal at the Olympics). I do believe it is important from the players’ perspective of earning the military exemption but I believe the Olympics are more important for evaluation of players for the senior team for the World Cup and the qualification process. The importance of the military exemption that gets lost in these discussions is how it affects the players career with their club. Whether you are playing domestic or abroad in Europe, it cannot be understated how crucial it is to miss 2 years of your prime career at your club. If you disagree, ask Son Heung Min why he went to play in the Asian Games in November in the middle of a busy campaign with Tottenham.
The Asian Cup… Does Anyone Care?
The Asian Cup, which take place every 4 years and starts about 6 months after the World Cup, is often overlooked by Korean fans. That may be due to the lack of success the team has had in the tournament, but it doesn’t change the fact that this tournament can be used positively for the KFA. First, it is a senior tournament so Bento or whoever is in charge will have all the players to use at their disposal. Secondly, the winners of the Asian Cup qualify for the Confederations Cup 2 years after which is a tune-up tournament for the next World Cup. It will give the players familiarity with playing other top tier countries but also experience in the World Cup host country.
If I Could Change One Thing
If I had the all mighty power of FIFA and change the scheduling, I would change the date of the Asian Cup. Having the Asian Cup start 6 months after the conclusion of the World Cup makes it a bit hard for fans to get excited about and sometimes just flat out get overlooked. If the Asian Cup was moved to 6 months before the World Cup began, it would boost the excitement levels of the supporting fans and also create more of an urgency to perform better at the tournament. Now this may make Confederations Cup qualification more tricky but I’m willing to try and find a compromise (maybe move up the Asian Cup to 1.5 years before the World Cup and the winner qualify for the Confederations Cup 6 months later).
As we begin another World Cup qualifying campaign, it starts a new journey and opens up another window of opportunity for the team to grow and for fans to show continued support. There are many things that the KFA does well but there are things they can improve on as well. The hope here is to see them maximize every opportunity the team has from top to bottom so that not only does Korea qualify for 2022, but the team and the players grow to become the current and future generation of stars.