Korea Republic are rarely bracketed with Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy and Spain. Those European and South American powerhouses have, after all, won the FIFA World Cup™ and all sit at least 48 places above the Taeguk Warriors on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
Korea Republic do nevertheless share one record with those five teams: they have featured at the last eight World Cups – an achievement beyond the likes of England, France, the Netherlands and Mexico, among others.
It is an accomplishment, according to midfielder Ji Dongwon, that they take a lot of satisfaction from, but with it comes understandable pressure. “Of course we are very proud of the record and the fact that we have qualified for the World Cup eight times in a row,” he told FIFA.com. “It means we have a habit of winning and these days we have to at least qualify for the World Cup.”
The pressure from the fans also comes from the wealth of football at their fingertips, with the top leagues in the world showing on South Korean television and shaping their expectations of what they want to see on the field. “Nowadays they are watching the [English] Premier League, [German] Bundesliga and [Spanish] La Liga. They always have access to good football.
“Automatically their expectations are very high, but one thing you have to remember is that there is a big difference between the continents. Up until now, Asia as a continent has not been as good as the likes of Europe and South America. From the performances we know we are not at the same level, but we are improving.”
Ji was just 11 years old when the East Asians registered their greatest footballing triumph, finishing fourth on home soil in 2002. Ji insists being coached by the captain of that great side, Hong Myungbo, is not an over-awing experience, but admits the difference between those who have been at a World Cup is stark to those in the team who are making their first trip. It is a reality that he feels could impact principle Group H rivals Belgium and Russia as well – who only have one player each who attended their last appearances in Korea/Japan.
I believe it is the teamwork between the players, and also the understanding between those on the field and the coaching staff, that is our greatest strength.
“If you look at our team, we only have five players with experience of a World Cup, and there is a clear difference between those five and the rest in terms of their attitude, approach and process to being here," said the Jeju native. "The players for Belgium and Russia may feel similar, being in the same position as many of us. They will both be under pressure from the fans to perform, having not been at a World Cup for 12 years."
With an average age of 26.2, there are only four sides in Brazil that can boast a more youthful squad than theirs, but they come with success already on their résumé. Their third-placed finish at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament London 2012, of which 11 of the squad participated under Myungbo, was the best-ever for any Korea Republic men's team at a global tournament.
Ji feels they have developed and grown since then, after their team-orientated brand of pass-and-move football exhibited up and down Great Britain caught the eyes of fans and pundits alike. “The current selection of players have all come together under Hong Myungbo, which I feel is very important and as time has gone by the teamwork has improved,” the former Sunderland man explained.
“We understand the philosophy of this team and the coach, and I feel we can produce some good results. I believe it is the teamwork between the players, and also the understanding between those on the field and the coaching staff, that is our greatest strength.”
Since picking up their bronze medals, many of those young stars have found spots in the top leagues in Europe and Asia to test themselves, with Ji set for a move to Borussia Dortmund following the tournament after impressing with Augsburg. The challenge of playing abroad has helped the team grow in his mind.
He said: “Since 2012 many of us have gone to the Bundesliga, Premier League and many others, so I think as a result of playing in those kinds of environments the individuals have developed a lot, so automatically the team has benefited as well. As a team, the philosophy has remained the same, but experience is the main thing we have gained.”
While expanding the comparisons with some the world's top teams might be even beyond the dreams of their expectant fans, with the taste of success already on the palette of this young team, they will have their sights set high as they kick off their Brazil 2014 campaign.