This time last year, Jung Sung-Ryong was barely known beyond the borders of Korea Republic. Twelve months on, the Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma keeper is preparing for his second World Cup in six months, with his exploits for club and country having established him as one of his position’s rising stars.
It has been a meteoric rise for a 25-year-old who, prior to the FIFA World Cup™, was fully expecting to continue dutifully in the role of national understudy. In Lee Woon-Jae, the Taeguk Warriors’ long-standing No1, he was up against a legend; a man who still enjoyed hero status due to his penalty heroics during the South Koreans’ unforgettable 2002 campaign. Nevertheless, as South Africa 2010 beckoned, coach Huh Jong-Moo saw enough in the young pretender to stake his reputation on a controversial change.
Promoting Jung to first choice represented a bold gamble, but Huh’s judgement was vindicated by a series of assured displays as Korea Republic enjoyed historic success. Jung had announced his arrival to the world, and his African adventure was to prove merely the start of a rapid ascent that continued last month when Seongnam became Asian champions.
Now, with confidence boosted by those landmark achievements, Jung is out to end his perfect year in fittingly fantastic style – by excelling at the FIFA Club World Cup. As he told FIFA.com: “It has been a great year for me and also for Korean football. We have shown great qualities with the national team and with Seongnam, and this tournament gives us the chance to prove again that we are a big country in world football. But I see this not only as the end of a great year and a great period for my own career, but also as a new beginning for myself, my club and for Korean football. We must always look to the future.”
This reluctance to dwell on the past was also evident in Jung’s coach, Shin Tae-Yong, who dismissed the suggestion that Pohang Steelers’ creditable third-place finish in 2009 had put his side under added pressure. In fact, the former Seongnam captain – returning to Abu Dhabi 15 years after competing as a player in the AFC Asian Cup – believes that his side can dream of setting a new benchmark.
“Personally, I feel no pressure,” he said. “If we can manage to beat Al Wahda, I think we can not only think of third place but also of reaching the final itself. Our goal, our purpose, is to win against Al Wahda and then to go on to confront the European champions. That will be a big challenge but I believe we have the quality to do something unexpected by becoming the first Asian team to reach the final of the Club World Cup.”
In bidding to make history, Shin might just have a secret weapon. Jung is, after all, famous in his homeland for scoring for his national Olympic side, netting against Côte d’Ivoire with a mammoth kick that embarrassed his opposite number. It begs the question: can we expect to see a repeat here in Abu Dhabi?
“(Laughs) I must confess that I did not intend to score that goal,” he said. “I can kick the ball very far, but I think the Ivory Coast goalkeeper just got caught in the wrong position. I was lucky on that occasion but I am a goalkeeper and I don’t expect it to happen here. I will do my best though, and who knows - maybe this time I can score with my head!”
However the goals arrive and from whatever source, Seongnam and their talented young keeper look certain to be well worth watching.