Iron discipline and personal restraint are as much a part of Korean football as boisterous passion is to the Nigerian fans, but these apparently contradictory attributes have come together in mutual appreciation at the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2009. The local supporters in Kaduna, decked out in Korea Republic colours, have thrown themselves body and soul behind the Asian side at the Ahamdu-Bello Stadium, one important reason why the team has performed so well at the tournament thus far, according to their coach Kwang-Jong Lee.
"We're incredibly proud of the fact the fans here have taken us to their hearts. I think it's probably because the Nigerians won the last U-17 World Cup when we hosted it two years ago," Lee postulated for the benefit of FIFA.com. The South Koreans disappointingly failed to survive the group phase on home soil, but they are determined to make amends now that they are here as guests of the reigning U-17 champions.
And Lee's lads are assuredly going the right way about it. They opened impressively with a 3-1 victory over Uruguay, but unluckily lost their second Group F fixture 2-1 to the Italians. However, the Kaduna crowd knows adventurous attacking football when they see it. The newest generation from the country which claimed fourth spot at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ came within an ace of going into their final group encounter against Algeria on Sunday with maximum points to their name.
However, the Azzurrini have inherited all the ruthlessness of their senior side and struck twice in the space of five minutes to come from behind and win. That leaves the Koreans needing to avoid defeat against Algeria to be sure of a place in the Round of 16. "We actually played better football than Italy, but we simply failed to score enough goals. That was the biggest difference between us and them," mused Lee. "But we're not disappointed, because we played extremely well. I'm totally optimistic about the Algeria game."
Not making the most of their chances is nothing new in South Korean football. Goal poachers, foxes-in-the-box, call them what you will: at all levels, the Asians seem to lack clinical penalty-box finishers. However, the current U-17s appear the finished product with the potential to match the best in the world at the present time. Aside from the trademark virtues of tactical nous and tireless running, Lee's team are capable of top-notch football, combining slide-rule interchanges with unexpected physical robustness.
The best of a good bunch so far have been Jong-Kwon Lee and Seung-Woo Nam. Holding midfielder Lee is exceptionally comfortable on the ball and boasts a finely-honed instinct for the moment at which to switch from defence to attack, while athletic captain Nam's pacy bursts down the left flank are a powerful attacking weapon. The in-form pair are spearheading the campaign in Nigeria on behalf what most observers would say is an extremely promising generation. FIFA.com put that thought to coach Lee, who promptly dismissed it: "Every generation in South Korean football has its strengths. Where I'll agree is that I do have a handful of players with decent prospects."
The Koreans' trademark virtues are reticence and reserve, visible here in Kaduna in their low-key preparations for every game. But add that to the liberating passion of the Nigerian fans, and you have a potent mix which might yet undo one of the favourites. The Italians proved too resilient, but the Koreans can repair their dented confidence with a convincing win over Algeria. If so, they could be one of the teams to watch.