Korea Republic may be the most successful Asian team at the FIFA World Cup - with four wins and seven draws in seven appearances at the competition - but they have also suffered 13 defeats in the process.
The South Koreans arrived at Switzerland 1954 just 24 hours before kicked off their maiden campaign against Hungary, and they were duly humbled 9-0 by the Europeans. A 7-0 loss to Turkey ensued before Kim Young-Sik’s returned home with their confidence shattered.
Although the Taeguk Warriors still lacked experience and belief when they returned to the big stage at Mexico 1986, they did score their first goal at the world finals, through Park Chang-Sun in a 3-1 defeat by Argentina, before claiming their first point with a 1-1 draw against Bulgaria.
After a disastrous campaign at Italy 1990, where Korea Republic lost all three group games, the general consensus was that their players were too nervous to express themselves and incapable of turning chances into goals. They only scored one at the tournament, courtesy of Hwangbo Kwan, despite boasting the likes of Choi Soon-Ho and Kim Joo-Sung in attack.
Korea Republic finally came of age at USA 1994, despite first-phase elimination. Two goals down to a Spain side featuring Fernando Hierro and Luis Enrique, among others, Kim Ho-Kon’s team scored twice in the last five minutes to snatch a 2-2 draw, before a goalless stalemate with Bolivia. The Asians were at a three-goal deficit to Germany at half-time in their final Group C outing, but fought back valiantly en route to a 3-2 loss that, although unable to send them into the knockout stage, gave them the belief that they were capable of trading blows with the sport’s heavyweights.
That was not the case four years later. Cha Bum-Kun’s charges, without the injured Hwang Sun-Hong’s genius, lost 3-1 to Mexico and 5-0 to the Netherlands. The iconic former forward was sacked before Korea Republic’s final group game against Belgium, which ended all square.
However, the year 2002 was the country’s annus mirabilis. Under the guidance of Guus Hiddink and as FIFA World Cup co-hosts, the Taeguk Warriors topped a section also comprising USA, Portugal and Poland to reach the Round of 16, before disposing of Italy and then Spain to book a semi-final date with Germany, which they lost 1-0. Key to their success was a dynamic 3-4-3 formation, impeccable organisation and a rare work ethic, which was paramount given that the squad had only a few overseas-based players such as Ahn Jung-Hwan and Seol Ki-Hyeon.
“The class of 2002 was able to spend more time in training and play on home soil in front of passionate supporters,” said Hong, who captained Korea Republic during their memorable campaign. “By comparison, the current national team is more experienced. Senior players have taken part in previous World Cups, while younger ones are familiar with international tournaments at various levels. That’s the strength of the current crop of the players, who have been together for the past two years.”
In fact, ten of Huh Jung-Moo’s 23-man squad have already participated in the FIFA World Cup, with the same number playing their club football overseas. Among those is Manchester United’s Park Ji-Sung, who is arguably Asia’s best-known player having scored at Korea-Japan 2002 and Germany 2006.
“It’s difficult to compare the current team with the one from eight years ago, because the 2002 side improved during the World Cup,” the Korea Republic captain said ahead of their final warm-up match against Spain in Austria on Thursday. “The current team certainly has the potential to match one of 2002. We will not be able to tell the difference until South Africa 2010 is over, and then we’ll see how much we’ve improved.”