A few eyebrows may have been raised when Choi Kang-Hee was appointed as Korea Republic coach following the sudden departure of Cho Kang-Rae last month. Perhaps, however, the decision should not have come as a surprise given the South Koreans' tendency to rely on home-grown bosses in recent years.
Four years ago, their predecessor Huh Jung-Moo had the burden of distinguishing himself from the Dutch influence that had ruled the Korean game for almost seven years. Choi, on the other hand, has all the resources at his disposal to keep up the consistent work that has gone before him.
However, the former Jeonbuk Motors coach is on something of a rescue mission. Korea Republic are level on ten points with Lebanon and need at least a draw at home against Kuwait, on eight points, in order to secure their passage to the final round of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Although the situation is not as desperate as when the Taeguk Warriors were down to the last minute of their final match en route to the USA 1994 finals, Choi will be under pressure to avoid an early elimination that could also put a premature end to his tenure in the hot-seat.
The priority is to fight as a unit against Kuwait on 29 February, when everything will be at stake in a single match.
Having transformed outsiders Jeonbuk into a force to be reckoned with over the past six years, Choi promised local fans that he would return someday, but that would only be after he has successfully guided the national team to the finals of Brazil 2014. At the moment, he does not seem to be interested in thinking beyond that, and is focused solely on the task ahead.
"The priority is to fight as a unit against Kuwait on 29 February, when everything will be at stake in a single match,” Choi said at a press conference in Seoul earlier this month. “We’ll take it as if it’s a final and I need to select the best players regardless of how old they are or which clubs they play for. The most important thing is to pick the right ones so they can perform to their fullest.”
Choi is not likely to make considerable changes to the squad he inherited from Cho, with less than two months left to prepare for the match against Kuwait, but understandably the 52-year-old is expected to call on some of Jeonbuk's key players who he led to the national championships in 2009 and last year.
“I’m thinking about bringing four or five players from Jeonbuk,” he said. “I’ve almost made my decision on a provisional squad of around 30 men, which is well enough to prepare for the Kuwait game. After that I’ll be able to think about the next step and a natural transition to the next generation of players.”
Lee in line to feature
Even though Choi admits that a generation shift is inevitable, there is one veteran he would like to stick with: “Lee Dong-Gook is the best striker in the K-League, although you can call up Park Chu-Young or Ji Dong-Won from England,” Choi explained.
“I’ve heard there has been a controversy on his abilities, but who else could you pick if you were the coach? He was the league’s MVP twice in three years with me at Jeonbuk, and he’s the first man in my mind at the moment.”
In fact, it is an irony that a forward with such an excellent track record – 115 goals in 278 league matches, which is only a goal shy of the milestone set by legendary Woo Sung-Yong – has failed to meet expectations when playing for his country.
But after overcoming a lengthy slump, including an unsuccessful stint at English club Middlesbrough, Lee was simply beyond belief under Choi, scoring no fewer than 51 times during the past three seasons.
The question is whether the striker will be able to find the net again for the Taeguk Warriors when it matters most. Roughly seven years ago, Korea Republic were leading Lebanon by a point in the penultimate round of qualifying for Germany 2006, ahead of their final group match against Maldives in November 2004.
Lee scored in a 2-0 win in Seoul that saw the hosts through to the next round, where he went on to open the scoring against Kuwait in another 2-0 victory at home. So it was little wonder that Lee put his name on the scoresheet in a 4-0 drubbing of the Kuwaitis four months later, as the South Koreans claimed their place in the finals. A familiar face against familiar foes in an all too familiar situation.