Koreans find cause for optimism
Korea Republic went out of the first round of Germany 2006 following a 2-0 defeat by Switzerland in their final group match.
After coming from behind to beat Togo 2-1 in their first match and then draw 1-1 with France , the East Asians looked to have an excellent chance of progressing to the second round. No sooner had they manoeuvred themselves to within touching distance of the last 16, however, than a well-organised Swiss side brought the Korean machine grinding to a halt.
Go to the Korea Republic team page
Before arriving on German soil, the Taeguk Warriors' realistic target was a place in the Round of 16. They may have taken fourth place at the 2002 FIFA World Cup on home soil four years ago, but a disappointing track record in major tournaments in Europe had Korean fans lowering their expectations for Germany.
Dick Advocaat's appointment as coach last September brought about an upturn in performances against European sides providing at least some hope that the Koreans could hold their own against Group G rivals France and Switzerland. The thinking was that as long as they beat debutants Togo in their opening game, they would have a fighting chance in their remaining two group fixtures.
The three musketeers
When the Togolese drew first blood in Frankfurt, it was Lee Chun-Soo who came to the rescue, equalising with a stunning free-kick. Playing in a free role after coming as a substitute, the Ulsan Hyundai player attacked both flanks of the African defence with his surging runs and got his reward with his first FIFA World Cup strike.
Ahn Jung-Hwan also showed what he is capable of by scoring the winner against Togo. Ahn, whose place in Advocaat's squad was in doubt until the very last minute, came on as a second-half substitute in all three games to add some much-needed firepower up front. Though he failed to add to his tally against France or Switzerland, Ahn's mere presence on the pitch galvanised his team-mates and unsettled the opposition.
Park Ji-Sung was Korea Republic's outstanding performer in their second match against France. After being overrun by the French in the first half, the Koreans launched repeated counterattacks after the break, with the artful Park guiding operations, and eventually grabbed a valuable point when the Manchester United midfielder equalised with just nine minutes remaining.
Where did it go wrong?
After a more than promising beginning, the Korean challenge juddered to a halt in the final game against Switzerland . Despite firing in no fewer than 15 shots on the Swiss goal, the Koreans' touch deserted them when it mattered most. Target man Lee Dong-Gook's absence from the tournament through injury finally took its toll and although his replacement Cho Jae-Jin showed plenty of promise for the future, he was unable to find the net.
Coach Advocaat also had to contend with a shaky back-line that conceded four goals in all. Uncertainty at the heart of the defence was all too evident against Togo and France. The void left by the great Hong Myung-Bo proved too large to fill for the likes of the returning Choi Jin-Cheul, the promising Kim Jin-Kyu and Kim Young-Chul, and more time is certainly needed to forge a reliable rearguard.
Another problem was the failure to strike the right balance between old and new. Advocaat's squad included ten veterans of the Korea/Japan 2002 campaign and a host of rising stars hopeful of making an impact in the Gillette Best Young Player voting. From the outset, though, it was clear Advocaat would draw on his more experienced campaigners. The country's brightest prospect, Park Chu-Young made a late appearance against the Swiss, but was denied a proper opportunity to unleash his full potential. The 21-year-old Baek Ji-Hoon enjoyed even less good fortune and left Germany without a single minute of action to his name.
An uncertain future
Speculation was rife before the tournament even started that Advocaat had signed a contract to manage Russian Premier League outfit Zenit St Petersburg. The Dutchman has given nothing away about his future, but Korea Republic's early exit could see him vacating his post sooner rather than later.
Whatever happens on the bench, there are unlikely to be any major changes in terms of playing personnel. Strength and stability will be the watchwords in the months to come, with experienced players continuing to form the nucleus of the side. Before they can embark on another FIFA World Cup adventure, however, the Koreans will need to address their shortcomings in front of goal and resolve those defensive problems.
Grounds for optimism
A look back at Korea Republic's previous appearances on the world stage shows how far they have come in a short space of time. At France 98 they recorded their first ever tournament point on European soil with a 1-1 draw against Belgium in their final group match. Four years later, they went one better by winning for the first time and then rewrote the record books by becoming the first Asian team in FIFA World Cup history to reach the semi-finals. This time around they won on European soil for first time against Togo before battling to a draw against big guns France. The next hurdle for the Taeguk Warriors is the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, where they will be hoping for more records to fall their way.