With the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ kicking off in the not too distant future, the evolution of powerhouses Korea Republic continues after the East Asians booked their seventh successive appearance on the world stage.
Asia's most frequent visitors to the FIFA World Cup finals, the Taeguk Warriors have also been known as the continent's most successful team at the showpiece event, their fourth place finish as co-hosts at Korea/Japan 2002 surpassing Korea DPR's quarter-final finish in England in 1966.
Under then coach Guus Hiddink, the Koreans swept past the likes of Italy and Spain to storm through to the semi-finals, where their impressive campaign came to an end with a 1-0 defeat by Germany. With this unprecedented success still fresh in the memory, the Koreans have kept faith with Dutch managers. First Jo Bonfrere took hold in the run-up to the previous FIFA World Cup, and then Dick Advocaat took charge, but failed to take the team beyond the group stage at Germany 2006.
While both managers failed to emerge from Hiddink's giant shadow, the Koreans continued their trend of going Dutch by appointing Pim Verbeek, who had served as an assistant coach for the East Asians at the last two FIFA World Cups.
The 2007 continental competition saw the two-time Asian champions struggle at the group stage, where they were held to a 1-1 draw by Saudi Arabia before losing out 2-1 to Bahrain in their second game. Verbeek's new-look side - a mixture of youth complemented with several experienced old hands - only secured a place in the last eight with a slim victory over co-hosts Indonesia in the last group game.
Korea Republic's lackluster performance continued in the knockout stages, with their three matches ending in goalless draws after regular and extra time. However, it was the team's trademark brand of never-say-die spirit, coupled with a series of brilliant displays by veteran goalkeeper Lee Woon-jae that ensured them a penalty shootout victory against Iran in the quarter-finals. After losing the crucial semi-final to Iraq they emerged victorious over Japan in the third-place playoff. Verbeek, however, parted company with the team following the tournament.
For the South Africa 2010 qualifying campaign, The Korean FA has reverted to a home-grown manager, with former boss Huh Jung-Moo taking the reins at the close of 2007. Huh, who is in his third spell with the Taeguk Warriors following a 12-day stint in 1995 and two years in the hot-seat between 1998 and 2000, could not have had a better start as his side thrashed Turkmenistan 4-0 at home in the opener of the third stage qualifying for South Africa 2010.
Results have not been as encouraging since then, however, with a 0-0 draw away to Korea DPR and a surprising 2-2 home draw with Jordan leaving Huh's team still sweating on qualification for the next Asian qualifying stage. But the South Koreans returned to winning ways by defeating Jordan 1-0 and then Turkmenistan 3-1 on the road, which put them through to the next round. The last group match against Korea DPR at home, therefore, was played in a friendly atmosphere as the two Koreas finished jointly on top of the table after a goalless draw.
Despite the criticism leveled at the team, coach Huh and his men silenced detractors by dominating their group throughout the final round to book qualification with two games to spare. After a 1-1 draw against Korea DPR, coach Huh's charges looked rampant in the next two outings as they registered a 4-1 home win over UAE before overcoming Saudi Arabia 2-0. They went on to hold Iran for a precious away point, which was followed by a lone-goal home victory over their resilient Northern Peninsula neighbours. A 2-0 away win over UAE may have looked customary for Huh's side but the result was just enough for them to seal their place in South Africa.