Perhaps no team enters the 2014 FIFA World Cup with less confidence than South Korea’s Taeguk Warriors. Korea Republic finished a tumultuous qualifying campaign by qualifying on a goal difference of +1 over Uzbekistan, thanks largely to a 6-0 defeat of Lebanon back in 2011. They promptly dismissed Coach Choi Kang-Hee after qualifying and replaced him with national soccer icon Hong Myung Bo. Hong Myung Bo is the Diego Maradona of South Korea, having led the Koreans to the quarterfinals in 2002.
However, he is proving to be the Diego Maradona of managers as well. Korea Republic enters the tournament fresh off a 0-4 loss to Ghana in their final friendly. Bo may be overmatched since this is his first real coaching job, although he did manage Korea Republic’s U-20 team to the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cup in 2009. Domestically, many face the dilemma of wanting a coaching change while simultaneously recognizing that it was too late to consider replacing Bo. Expectations for the team are low entering the first game.
The first game against Russia (6pm ET/3pm PT kickoff) is likely to decide Korea Republic’s chances to advance to the next round. Belgium is a large favorite to advance in first place out of group H with Korea Republic and Russia fighting for the second ticket to the Knockout rounds. Victory over Russia would be an outstanding step towards advancing. A draw could put Korea Republic in the unenviable position of trying to advance on goal difference, a difficult task for a side that struggles in attack. A loss would have them packing their bags and asking about early checkout.
On the field, Korea Republic prefer to start in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Under Bo, the team has played a counterattacking style, absorbing pressure and producing goals from swift breaks. When it works, the back four are a highly organized unit that functions at a level exceeding the individual talent. Recent results in the lead up games question this premise, which will be a concern for Hong Myung-Bo and his staff. Attacking midfield should be the team’s strength.
They are led by 21 year old midfielder Son Heung Min. Son is an upcoming prospect in the Bundesliga, completing the season at Bayern Leverkusen with 12 goals and 7 assists in 43 appearances across all competitions. He will carry a heavy burden during this tournament where he will be asked to dictate play while also making himself a threat by getting ahead and into attack. The strike force was led by two Korea Republic-based players, Kim Shinwook and Lee Keunho, during the qualifying campaign. Their play has been uninspiring, leading Bo to recall Waterford striker Park Chuyoung. Park is a bit of a mystery at this point because he simply hasn’t played since moving from AS Monaco to Arsenal in 2011.
Korea Republic faces a tough challenge in Group H, but advancing to the knockout stages is not inconceivable. They will look to avoid defeat against Russia at all costs, as a loss in their first match would end almost all hope of advancing. There are some positives. No one is quite sure how the travel and conditions will impact the European teams, and Korea’s players from Asia’s top leagues, should have a fitness advantage. Korea Republic may also get the advantage of playing a Belgium side after they have already secured a first place advancement from the group.
While a place in the knockout round appears unlikely, it is certainly not an Australia situation where the players can safely make July vacation plans.