Group F: South Korea are up against it in Group of Death
It was a close call in Asian qualifying for South Korea but they managed to slip in
South Korea’s Son Heung-min will be key to their chances of progressing at the World Cup. Photo: Getty Images
South Korea (500-1)
Who are they?
It’s 16 years since South Korea’s heroics at their home World Cup when they saw off Italy to reach the semi-finals. While the country has been in the headlines recently it’s been almost exclusively to do with relations with their nearest neighbours and not the national team who will have their work cut out for them in what looks to be the closest thing to a group of death at this year’s tournament. They only managed to scrape through qualifying and recent friendly losses to Poland and Northern Ireland won’t inspire much confidence.
World Cup moment
For this we must go back to 2002. After finishing as runners-up in their group, South Korea were drawn against the mighty Italy in the last 16. Roy Keane was at home watching from his couch (probably) as one of the World Cup’s greatest shocks materialised. After forcing the game to extra-time with a 1-1 draw which included a missed penalty from Ahn Jung-hwan, it looked like spotkicks would be needed to separate the teams. That was until Ahn rose up to meet a header in the 117th minute, this time getting the better of Gianluigi Buffon and sending the nation of South Korea into chaotic celebrations. A reported three million people flooded the streets of Seoul in delirious scenes. Even the chairman of North Korea’s football association, Ri Kwang-gun, wrote to his South Korean counterpart offering congratulations. Another moment like that this year could do a lot for tensions on the Korean peninsula.
How did they get here?
By the skin of their teeth. With just four wins from 10 games – all of which came at home – South Korea relied on the failures of others to see their run of appearing at every World Cup since 1986 continue. A tense 0-0 draw against fellow qualifying contenders Uzbekistan on the final day of the Asian group stages, combined with Syria’s failure to beat Iran, was enough for them to book their place in Russia.
Despite qualifying for Russia, South Korea’s poor performance along the way was enough for manager Uli Stielike to lose his job with two games remaining. He has been replaced by Shin Tae-Yong who, so far, has not managed too much of a change in fortunes. The 49-year-old has managed the national team at a number of underage levels and obviously knows the system well but the World Cup will be a different matter altogether.
The main man
Such is the hero status of Tottenham’s Son Heung-min in South Korea that, when Spurs are being shown on Korean television, the scoreline graphic simply shows Son’s face instead of the Spurs crest. Imagine RTÉ doing something similar with John O’Shea. Son is the highest Asian scorer in Premier League history and comes into this World Cup off the back of his best season to date. He is by far and away the best South Korean player – scoring 20 goals in his 63 appearances for his country – but it’s hard to see them progressing on his talent alone.
The one to watch
Kwon Chang-hoon is a 23-year-old attacking midfielder who plays for Dijon in Ligue 1 and is widely regarded as South Korea’s next big hope to make it big in Europe. The midfielder was joint top scorer at his club this season and has already netted four times in 16 games for his country. A standout performance in Russia could see him join Son and Ki Sung-Yueng in England in the not too distant future.
While there is no real Group of Death at this year’s tournament, Group F may as well be for South Korea as they face Mexico, Sweden and Germany. It will be a surprise if they manage to finish anywhere better than last.
Goalkeepers: Kim Seung-gyu (Vissel Kobe), Kim Jin-hyeon (Cerezo Osaka), Cho Hyun-woo (Daegu FC)
Defenders: Kim young-gwon (Guangzhou Evergrande), Jang Hyun-soo (FC Tokyo), Jung Seung-hyun (Sagan Tosu), Yun Yong-sun (Seongnam FC), Oh Ban-suk (Jeju United), Kim Min-woo (Sangju Sangmu), Park Joo-ho (Ulsan Hyundai), Hong Chul (Sangju Sangmu), Go Yo-han (FC Seoul), Lee Yong (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors)
Midfielders: Ki Sung-yueng (Swansea City), Jung Woo-young (Vissel Kobe), Ju Se-jong (Asan Mugunghwa FC), Koo Ja-cheol (FC Augsburg), Lee Jae-sung (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), Lee Seung-woo (Hellas Verona), Moon Seon-min (Incheon United)
Forwards: Kim Shin-wook (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), Son Heung-min (Tottenham Hotspur), Hwang Hee-chan (FC Red Bull Salzburg).