“Korea Republic will be the best team in the world in 20 to 30 years. We'll reach the top and we'll remain there. Korea Republic will be like Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina... a team that is always up there.”
You're thinking the country's U-20 coach Lee Kwang Jong, sat in Colombia's coffee hub, needs a strong mug of Manizales' finest to awake him from dreamland, right? Well, give the following statistic a glance before leaping to that supposition: 18 of Korea Republic's 21 players at this FIFA U-20 World Cup had never played football before 2002!
It is a paralysing statistic when one considers that the Spaniards they will come up against in the Round of 16 today had, concurrently, done far more than actually kicked a ball. Indeed, whispers of Marc Bartra's class had already departed La Masia and surfaced among the first-team squad at Barcelona nine years ago; Oriol Romeu was on the books at Espanyol; and Daniel Pacheco was making waves in Malaga's youth ranks.
“Hosting the World Cup revolutionised football in our country,” Lee explained. “Before the tournament football was not taught in schools. Afterwards it became part of the curriculum. And having the World Cup made all the kids wanted to go out and start playing.”
One of them was Lee Ki Je. He explained: “I had never played football before 2002, but having the World Cup in our country made me really want to learn to play.”
He certainly did that. To such a degree, in fact, that the attacking midfielder played a fundamental function in Korea Republic's progression from Group A. And while he failed to make the score-sheet in the Asians' three matches, he came mightily close with some seldom, swerving free-kicks.
“David Beckham is the best free-kick taker I have seen,” Lee revealed. “I have tried to learn from his style. I hope I get the chance to take some against Spain.”
The Korea Republic coach accepts Julen Lopetegui's team will be the overwhelming favourites to book a quarter-final against Brazil or Saudi Arabia, though he reckons an upset could unfold. “Spain are very good individually and collectively,” he said. “Technically they have a lot of quality. They pass the ball around very well, keeping possession just like the senior side. And every one of their attacking players has such quality.
“We've got to put pressure on them. We've got to stick to our game plan. Spain will be the favourites but it's a game both teams can win. We're going out there to win it in 90 minutes, and if it goes to extra time in 120. But if it goes to penalties we'll be ready. No [Dong Geon] is really, really good at saving penalties. We trained penalties yesterday and he was doing really well. With him in goal, if it goes to a shoot-out we will be confident.”
Lee believes overcoming such a steep Spanish hurdle would fuel South Korean football's charge towards eminence. “It would be a very important step for our game,” he said. “We eliminated Spain from the 2002 World Cup, when they also had a lot of very talented players. If we could do it again it would be another big step on our long journey towards becoming the best football nation in the world.
“People may not believe that's where we are headed, but look at where we were 20 to 30 years ago. We've come on a long, long way. If we continue to progress at a similar rate, think of where we will be. South Korean players have the skill of South Americans and the discipline and organisation of Europeans. This means that once we reach the top, we'll be very difficult to remove.
"If we were to get to the quarter-finals of this [FIFA U-20] World Cup it would really create a lot of interest in football among the South Korean children, just as the success of the 2002 team did. I spoke to Park Ji-Sung (who scored one of Korea Republic's penalties in the shoot-out in Gwangju) recently and he passed on his encouragement. He and all the players know how much [success in Colombia] could boost our football."