Football in Korea Republic has thrived over the past three decades. The country's youngsters stormed into the semi-finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Mexico 1983 to earn the now-famous Red Devils nickname, before the senior Taeguk Warriors reached the same stage at the FIFA World Cup™ on home soil seven years ago.
However, Korea Republic's U-17 representatives have failed to emulate the success of their older brothers, with their best showing at the world finals coming at Canada 1987, when they reached the quarter-finals. Moreover, two years ago, as tournament hosts, they fell to first-phase elimination after losing their opening two matches.
Now, ahead of their fourth appearance at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, Korea Republic coach Lee Kwang-Jong is determined to mastermind a successful campaign. "Our U-20 side is making waves over there [in Egypt, where they will take on Ghana in the last eight today] and we're a bit under pressure," he told FIFA.com during their final training sessions in Paju's National Football Centre.
"But it's not bad at all. I hope my boys are motivated by the achievement of their seniors. It can only have a positive effect. I know we have been underachievers at this age level. That's because Asian teams are still a step or two behind the world-class teams, and it's never easy to bridge the gap and achieve good results."
The team comes first
That said, the currrent U-17 squad has been working hard to close the gap for over two years. "We've been together since 2007 and I'd say we're 90 per cent ready now," the 45-year-old coach said. "The players are in very good condition in terms of both physical strength and organisation. But the only thing concerns me is that we have a couple of players still recovering from injuries."
Those injuries have left a huge hole in the South Korean rearguard: centre-back Kim Seong-Sik failed to recover in time to make the squad, and long-serving captain Lim Chang-Woo was forced to hand over the armband to left-back Kim Jin-Su, who is expected to play out of position at the heart of the defence.
"Hopefully, some of our fullbacks and midfielders will be able to fit in wherever they're required to play," explained Lee. "We will have to rely on our current resources and take advantage of our strength, which is the team spirit. We don't have a specific goal at this tournament but we'll approach every game as if it's the final."
That is probably why Lee does not stop his players watching the U-20s on television, despite the matches taking place late at night or in the early hours of the morning in Korea Republic. "I don't mind if they watch the game at 11pm before going to bed," the 45-year-old Lee said, grinning.
"As you might have seen, they're not playing as a bunch of individuals but a team as a whole. Look at Kim Min-Woo, for example. He wasn't even a regular when the tournament began but when the opportunity came, he could grab it because he knew how to make sacrifices for the team wherever he was on the pitch. That's what I'm expecting my boys to learn from."