For the past few years, the Korea Republic's young footballers have been 'going west'. They are not hesitating to reveal their dreams to play in Europe, which could be regarded a little too ambitious in a country where modesty is a traditional virtue.
Since the influx of foreign coaches and the subsequent exodus of top players began at the turn of the century, those who ply their trade in major leagues of the Old Continent have become the core of the national team. The Premiership trio, namely Park Ji-Sung of Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur's Lee Young-Pyo, and Seol Ki-Hyun of Fulham, have been an automatic choice for coach Huh Jung-Moo.
However, with the trio struggling to find their form with their respective clubs, barring Park who has returned to United's squad in the spring, it is getting more and more difficult for Huh to guarantee them places without taking into account their match fitness. At the same time, the coach is left with a headache, as he tries to build a team that can perform consistently with or without his foreign-based players. And this is probably why Huh and his coaching staff have been trying to cover almost every game in the domestic league in a hope to unearth a new gem.
Chunnam Dragons captain Kwak Tae-Hwi came into prominence with his opening goal against Turkmenistan in February which kick-started Korea Republic's qualifying campaign. The 26-year-old centre back, who had been a virtually unknown substitute at FC Seoul until last summer, was a driving force in Chunnam's FA Cup win last season, scoring the winner with a spectacular volley in the first leg of the final against Pohang Steelers back in December.
Kwak was ever-present in the Taeguk Warriors' title winning East Asian Championship as well, again firing home the winner against China PR. The only blemish so far is that he was injured during the opening match of the K-League in March, although he is expected to return in time for the qualifier against Jordan at home next month.
Alongside Kwak, goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong made his international debut in a friendly with Chile in January. Brought on as a half-time substitute, the 23-year-old conceded the only goal of the game after ten minutes but that proved to be a turning point for the promising custodian, who also took part in the FIFA World Youth Championship in 2005.
Jung went on to start in the first game of the Preliminary Competition for South Africa 2010, and stood between the posts as the hosts ran out 4-0 winners against Turkmenistan. Although he missed two games in the East Asian Championship after conceding two goals to China PR in the tournament's curtain raiser, Jung returned to Shanghai in impressive fashion as Korea Republic held their northern neighbours Korea DPR to a goalless draw last month.
Park Won-Jae, Jung's former team-mate at Pohang until last season, is nicknamed 'Park Ji-Sung for three seconds' - due to his resemblance of appearance and playing style to the Manchester United star. Although the hard-working utility man, who plays on the left flank either as winger or defender, has not started a game yet in the qualifying campaign, Park has proved himself during the East Asian Championship and could well celebrate his 24th birthday in style if Huh gives him another chance in the game against Jordan.
Of course, there is still room for improvement for those youngsters and they may need more time to establish themselves in the national team. But until the moment Korea Republic will have secured their seventh successive FIFA World Cup™ appearance next year, Huh's search is set to be ongoing.