Korea Republic coach Cho Kwang-Rae predicted a glorious future for his young team after watching them defeat Uzbekistan 3-2 to secure third place at the Asian Cup. The Taeguk Warriors, who reached the last 16 at the FIFA World Cup™, established a 3-0 lead inside 40 minutes at Doha's Al Sadd Stadium yesterday evening before an Alexander Geynrikh-led fightback saw the Uzbeks come back into the match.
Korea held firm in the game's closing stages, however, to claim a victory that guarantees them a place at the next Asian Cup tournament in Australia in four years' time. Koo Ja-Cheol, 21, claimed the game's opening goal before 19-year-old striker Ji Dong-Won netted a brace, as Cho's side bowed out playing the same youthful, exuberant football that has been their calling card in Qatar.
Only a heart-breaking penalty shoot-out defeat by Japan in the semi-finals prevented Korea from reaching the final and Cho said he took responsibility for his team's failure to overcome their East Asian arch-rivals.
"Personally, I want to say the players have not lost a game in the tournament," said the Korea Republic coach. "I lost the penalty shoot-out against Japan because of my decisions ahead of the shoot-out."
He added: "I want to thank all the players who sacrificed themselves for the team. They never give up, they have excellent fighting spirit and they fought to the end. The Asian Cup allowed us to show the world the possibilities for Korea Republic's new generation. We have changed the way we play football and I want to keep working on this progress for the good of Korean football."
Koo can fill the void
With captain Park Ji-Sung and left-back Lee Young-Pyo retiring from international football, Cho has been enthused by the mature displays of players such as Koo, Ji, winger Lee Chung-Yong and midfielder Ki Sung-Yueng.
Koo's 17th-minute opener against Uzbekistan was his fifth goal of the tournament, taking him above Bahrain's Ismaeel Abdulatif as the tournament's outright leading scorer. Cho admitted he had been surprised by the Jeju United starlet's effectiveness in front of goal.
"I didn't want him to be the top scorer in the tournament," said Cho. "I asked him to play behind the strikers, as an attacking midfielder. He's an excellent player. His mobility and his awareness of matches is excellent.
"As we say goodbye to Park Ji-Sung, I believe Koo Ja-Cheol is one of the players who can cover for his absence. If we can get (injured Monaco striker) Park Chu-Young in and let him play with Koo Ja-Cheol, it will be very good for the sharpness of the attack. He's the type of player who can play with anyone."
Cho said he "can't be satisfied" with a third-place finish, but conceded his team's displays augured well for the qualifying campaign to reach the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, which begins in the summer. "The long-term target is Brazil," he said. "We will do our best in qualifying and we will try to keep progress on the right track, getting better and better game by game."
Park confident in youth
Park, the Korea Republic captain, plans to hold a press conference in Seoul on Monday but said after the game in Doha against the Uzbeks that he held out a lot of hope for the young Korean team that has impressed at the Asian Cup.
"At the moment the young players are very talented and skilful, their technique is great," he said.
"They just need some experience and I think this tournament has been very important for them in terms of that. I think some of the players can go to Europe and gain experience there, then they will be even stronger than now."
Asked what the future held for him, he replied: "My future? I will try to do my best at my club and just do what I can to help them win everything."
Lee, who won 127 caps, said it had been a pleasure to play alongside Park, his country's most iconic sportsman. "I wanted Park to play for his country a little more but there must be something personal in his mind so we should respect his decision," he said of a player who earned 100 caps. "He sacrifices himself for the team. The younger generations will remember him sacrificing himself for the team and his love of football."
Lee also sacrificed himself, experiencing highs and lows in his 12 years of international duty, which included 12 FIFA World Cup games. "This is the time to step down from the national team. I wanted to give a chance to the younger generations. The young players are very skilful and very good," he said. "I want the Korean fans to support the next generation of players like they supported me. If they are in a bad situation, I'd like them to encourage the players to help get them through the situation."
Like Park, he felt the 2002 FIFA World Cup was the highlight, proving to be a pivotal moment for Asian football. "Every single moment in the national team was very important, but personally the 2002 World Cup was a turning point for Korean football," he said. "Even the players couldn't believe the achievement of the Korean team, it was our most historic achievement. In that tournament we showed the world that Asian football could do something at the World Cup."