Having taken a well-deserved rest for the New Year's holidays earlier this week, Korea Republic are now heading for the Middle East ahead of their crucial encounter with Iran in the Asian Zone qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ next month.
Before they were given the four-day break, the Taeguk Warriors had been training in Jeju where they played five warm-up matches in the space of two weeks. Those intensive fixtures, however, were not the only reason why coach Huh Jung-Moo called up his 23 men all the way down to the southern island.
"I wanted my players to restore their match fitness in the training camp as they had not been together for a while," said Huh. "I'm satisfied because they're now back on track and 70 or 80 per cent physically, although we've had a tough time here due to severe weather conditions."
In fact, Huh had planned to climb Halla Mountain, the highest peak in South Korea, with his players to get themselves acclimated in advance to the altitude of the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, which is located 1,200 metres above sea level. But the heavy snow earlier this month prevented them from going up there and instead, they went to Seongsan Peak, a local shrine for watching the sunrise and making New Year resolutions.
Huh's wish for this year, of course, will be to lead Korea Republic to their seventh consecutive appearance at the world finals. And if the Taeguk Warriors can work a miracle once again as they did against Saudi Arabia, a 2-0 away victory in Riyadh back in November, they will be able to consolidate pole position in Group 2 at the halfway point.
An Iranian stronghold
But as Huh admitted, Iran have always been tough opponents for Korea Republic and may have the psychological edge ahead of the showdown in Tehran. Team Melli famously beat the South Koreans 6-2 in the quarter-final of the AFC Asian Cup in 1996, before the 2-0 home victory en route to the continental finals a decade later.
Besides, Iran have never lost against Korea Republic in their three previous meetings at home (two 2-0 wins and a 2-2 draw), and will take heart from the fact that they are under the guidance of the legendary Ali Daei, who scored four goals against the South Koreans in Dubai 12 years ago.
"I know we have never beaten Iran on the road but there are such things in football," said Huh. "It's time for us to make a history, and we are going to make it the other way around this time. We have been trying to be strong and we will become a stronger side. We will play our football with style, regardless of who we play against."
On Thursday, Korea Republic's national team left for Dubai where they will have two friendlies with Syria and Bahrain next week. And in the following week, all eyes will be focused on Tehran's Azadi Stadium where, in front of some 90,000 Iranian fans, the Taeguk Warriors will be fighting for all three points against the hosts for the first time in their fourth attempt in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers.