Few would remember a smile on the face of Hong Myung-Bo, who was once the legendary captain of Korea Republic and now the coach of their U-20 side. But anyone who witnessed his rare expression of joy last week, after the young Taeguk Warriors lifted the trophy of Suwon Cup international youth tournament, must have recalled the moment of euphoria when Hong led his country to the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup™ on home soil seven years ago.
Although repeating that feat at the world finals in Egypt this September will be a tall order, Hong's charges have certainly raised the expectations since the 40-year-old took the reins earlier this year. In fact, the South Koreans have been simply unbeatable, winning six friendlies after a draw in March - not bad for a coach who has yet to make his competitive debut.
After an impressive performance but ultimately disappointing result at Canada 2007, Korea Republic returned to the continental stage attempting to demonstrate their status as a true powerhouse of the region. As things turned out, the 11-time Asian champions failed to reach the final, losing out to eventual runners-up Uzbekistan. Although they qualified for the world championship, the manner in which they did so was far from convincing.
Excellent track record
When Hong took over the job the following year, it was understandable that the inexperienced coach was under pressure right from the beginning. "We don't have much time to prepare for the World Cup," he told FIFA.com. "But all in all, I feel everything is going into the right direction even if I cannot say it's perfect at the moment."
Almost perfect, that is to say. Barely a month after the first team meeting, Hong's men travelled to Egypt to take part in a three-nation tournament held in Alexandria. After a hard-fought 2-2 draw with Czech Republic, the South Koreans came from behind to defeat the hosts 4-1 with midfielder Seo Jung-Jin scoring a hat-trick. Korea Republic's run of form now has them on a six-match winning streak, including back-to-back wins against Trinidad and Tobago in May.
Up to that point, however, Hong was not even sure who should wear the armband, or whether he would call up Ki Sung-Yueng - one of the key players for Korea Republic at Canada 2007 and now an indispensible member of the senior side. "Those things are what I'm going to think about when I'll make a final decision [about the squad list]," he said. "I know the lads have been doing quite well but I'll have to take everything into consideration in the build-up to the finals."
With less than two months before the finals, Korea Republic competed in an intense dress rehearsal where they took on fellow finalists South Africa, Egypt, and arch-rivals Japan over a five-day period. The hosts got off to a flying start with a 4-0 drubbing of South Africa, before edging Egypt 1-0 thanks to a late penalty converted by captain Koo Ja-Cheol. The defensive midfielder, who had been absent in the opening match due to his club commitment, returned to inspire the victory, also impressing in the 2-1 win over Japan.
"We still have a lot of things to improve because we'll have to play stronger opponents in the World Cup," says Hong. "We had problems both up front and at the back, where we allowed too much space and too many chances. Hopefully we'll be able to sort them out during training over the coming month."