When Korea Republic finished fourth at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ on home soil, few could have realised that the ground-breaking achievement would constantly come back to haunt them for over a decade.
While the Taeguk Warriors have endured indifferent experiences at the world finals since that memorable tournament, they also have found it far more difficult to please their own fans who have taken for granted a place in the showpiece event. In the meantime, no fewer than nine coaches – including two interim managers – have come and gone to grab the poisoned chalice, with two of them stepping down or forced to do so even after securing qualification for the global tournament.
Now, exactly 11 years after captaining his country to the last four at Korea/Japan 2002, national footballing icon Hong Myung-Bo became the tenth coach of Korea Republic since Guus Hiddink cast a spell on the peninsula. Hong’s appointment came as little surprise, given the fact that the 44-year-old had led the national teams at various levels since 2009 until last year.
“It’s a matter of fact that Korean football has improved a lot in terms of quality since 2002,” he said upon his appointment last month. “But I do not have much to say as to whether our goals have also improved so far.”
Blueprint for success
If Hong and his charges are not to rest on their laurels, they would have to raise their standard and aim higher than what they have achieved in recent years. But does Hong have what it takes?
Although Hong is only making his senior coaching debut at the current EAFF East Asian Cup, he has been involved in most of Korea Republic’s major campaigns over the past seven years. He was the assistant coach for Dick Advocaat and Pim Verbeek at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany and the 2007 AFC Asian Cup respectively, before joining coach Park Sung-Hwa’s staff for the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament in Beijing the following year.
Hong then became the frontman at the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt, where he guided the Taeguk Warriors to the quarter-finals, and went on to lead an almost identical side to third place at the Asian Games Guangzhou 2010. The highlight of his young coaching career came last year, when ‘Hong’s children’ made history by winning the bronze medal at London 2012.
It is fair to say that none of his predecessors had been given such a long period of time to prepare for success, but as it transpired, Hong might have been privileged to work with a crop of talented players as well.
The bronze generation
At the core of the new generation is captain and versatile midfielder Koo Ja-Cheol, who came to prominence by winning the golden boot at the Asian Cup in 2011. The Wolfsburg starlet recently returned to his club following an eye-catching loan spell at Augsburg last season, and also scored the second goal that secured a 2-0 win over Japan in the London 2012 Bronze medal match in Cardiff.
Another indispensable member of the new-look squad is Koo’s former Jeju United team-mate Hong Jeong-Ho, because the centre-back is widely regarded as the true heir of his national team coach to lead the South Korean rearguard. Although a knee injury prevented him from going to London last summer, Hong returned in time to impress against Australia in the opening match of the East Asian Cup on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Cho Young-Cheol seems to have completed arguably the most impressive transformation among the class of Egypt 2009, from a centre forward to a wide midfielder, and faces stiff competition for a place on the flank with Kim Bo-Kyung. The Cardiff City winger has already established himself in the senior squad, scoring two goals in 19 matches for his country.
The only problem for Hong is up front, as was the case for his predecessors. He called upon Park Chu-Young and Ji Dong-Won in an attempt to end the goal drought ahead of Guangzhou 2010, and the duo also delivered in the finals of London 2012. However, the Taeguk Warriors are struggling in this East Asian Cup without the Europe-based strikers, being held to goalless draws in their first two matches against Australia and China PR.
Chances will arrive, and goals will come. But it does not matter who scores, according to the coach who was also known as the Eternal Libero in his playing days. What matters most is, as Hong’s class motto says: ‘One team, one spirit, one goal’.