A little under two months from the kick-off of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, fans from Korea Republic are watching closely as coach Hong Myungbo and his managerial team piece together their final squad. While many eyes are on those stars plying their trades in Europe, it is a pair of Chinese-based players that have impressed through their club form.
Park Jongwoo and Jang Hyunsoo, both of whom joined Guangzhou R&F at the start of the season, have impressed as the club have won three and drawn two in six outings to reach the top five in the league table. Deployed as a centre-back, Hyunsoo has shored up the back-line while Jongwoo, playing as a holding midfielder, has impressed with both his defensive shielding and distribution. Last year the team conceded 47 goals in their debut Chinese Super League season - second only to bottom side Wuhan. This season their net has bulged just six times to date, conceding two goals less than leaders and defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande.
It is a feat which earned the praise of coach Sven Goran Eriksson. "These two players are both integral parts of our team," said the former England boss. "Our defence is much-improved this season, thanks to the help of our two Korean players."
Interestingly, both players cut their teeth with Yonsei University team, before breaking into coach's Hong's U-23 national team. Hyunsoo failed to make it into the Olympic squad at London 2012, while Jongwoo was instrumental as Korea Republic won bronze in the global showpiece two years ago. After coach Hong took the reins of the senior national side last June, the duo graduated into the Taeguk Warriors, featuring in their closing 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying match against Iran.
Despite showing some telepathic understanding between each other on the pitch, the pair denied that they had discussed their move to Guangzhou beforehand. "It was nothing like that," 22-year-old Hyunsoo told FIFA.com recently. "In fact, I came to China first and then I heard Jongwoo would join me. I am very happy to have an old acquaintance here in him."
But the pair did share the same motivations for their seemingly unexpected transfer, as Jongwoo explained. "Guangzhou are ambitious and their faith in me touched me when they provided me with the offer," the 25-year-old told FIFA.com. "Particularly, the club have a world-class coach in Eriksson. So I think I can continue to make progress under his guidance."
Jongwoo's thirst for improvement was initially realised by Eriksson, who made him a versatile player during pre-season camp in Turkey. With Hyunsoo's absence due to illness, Jongwoo became a makeshift centre-back and it didn't take him long to demonstrate his ability following a move from midfield.
"Generally, we are familiar with Eriksson's tactics," Jongwoo continued. "Because I have played with a similar style with both Busan IPark and also the national team. But it is a new team so what I should do is to adapt to the new environments as quickly as possible. I hope we (Hyunsoo and I) do our jobs well and Guangzhou secure a place in next year’s AFC Champions League.”
World Cup dreaming
With Brazil 2014 drawing near, the duo harbour dreams of their first FIFA World Cup but Hyunsoo chose to downplay expectations. “Without question the World Cup squad will feature the best players,” said the defender, who helped Korea Republic to the second round at the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia. “Of course I want to represent my country in Brazil but I would rather work hard than just hoping.”
Jongwoo, for his part, voiced his hunger to participate on the world stage. “I failed to show all my capabilities during our last qualifying matches,” he said, referring to Korea Republic’s last two matches against Uzbekistan and Iran which he started. “I will do my best to help my team if I can make into our World Cup squad. Coach Hong is the best manager I have seen and I believe the team can break new ground in Brazil.
“All our rivals are strong,” he said in reference to a group which also features Belgium, Russia and Algeria. “But we have our own strengths and can mount a serious challenge against them. I hope we can be strong as a team and reach the last eight.”