Despite having reached the Olympic finals eight times, Korea Republic have never performed well enough to meet their high standards in the tournament proper. The young Taeguk Warriors have got no further than a quarter-finals finish at London 1948 and another exit from the last eight at Athens 2004.
In the latter, the South Koreans came from three goals down to hold Mali to a 3-3 draw in their final group match that secured passage to the knock-out stage. That was also the moment that current Korea Republic captain Hong Jeong-Ho still savours as the towering defender told FIFA.com.
“We were down three-nil midway through the second half,” recalled Hong, who was a promising, 15-year-old striker at that time. “But Cho Jae-Jin pulled two goals back before Mali conceded an own goal. Every player gave their all to get a good result and they never gave up, and I was very much impressed.”
Sadly, the Jeju United centre-back broke his shin during K-League game at the end of last month and while he is recuperating from the injury, Hong has been following his club and country on television like he did during the Games in Athens eight years ago.
“I’m fine now. I can walk without crutches and just began light trainings as well,” he said. “The coach [Hong Myung-Bo] also told me to forget about football and relax for a while. At first the doctors said it would take two months for me to return, but as I’m recovering quicker than expected it could be sooner than I first thought.”
A Seogwipo native, Hong has played for his hometown club since his professional debut in 2010 and says that he will never leave the islanders as long as he stays on the domestic stage. “I’m attached to Jeju United both emotionally and physically,” he admitted. “I’m not a big star here but I feel comfortable because I know many people here and they help me a lot. I couldn’t have become what I am now without their support.”
Despite this humble attitude, his qualities have drawn many comparisons between himself and the legendary Hong Myung-Bo. “It’s true that I’ve heard a lot about that before. I’m flattered every time I hear that, but at the same time I feel a little bit under pressure,” Hong said. “Actually the coach is my role model and I’ve found some resemblances in the style of play. I lead the lads from behind while trying to create spaces and pass the ball up front. I’m also trying to develop the attacking side of my game, which could be one of my strengths in the future.”
It would be a huge disappointment if he missed London 2012, as Hong was an integral part of the Taeguk Warriors that qualified for their seventh consecutive finals. “I’ve been waiting for this for so long, and I was really happy when we won the ticket to London,” he said.
“I’ve never been to England before but I’d love to go there and then return with good memories. Since I’ve seen the stadiums of the Premier League only on telly, I’d like to go to Old Trafford in particular.”
The only way he could officially visit the home of Manchester United during the summer, however, is to lead his side into one of the semi-finals to be held there. That is, only if Korea Republic finish runners-up in Group B and then progress beyond the last eight, according to the fixture schedule. But such a complicated scenario does not seem to be in the mind of the straightforward youngster.
“We don’t have a specific goal in this tournament at the moment, and the coach hasn’t even mentioned it yet,” explained Hong, who will coincidentally turn 23 on 12 August, the day after the Wembley final. “But personally, I’d like to see us go beyond quarter-finals because we’ve never been there before. It would be even better if we won any medal, but we should go through the hurdles in the first place.”