Korea Republic face a tough battle at home in Thursday's matchday three of Asia's third qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. Having disappointed in a lacklustre goalless draw against Syria, the Taeguk Warriors have their sights fixed at nothing fewer than an emphatic victory. But awaiting them are a desperate Qatar, who are left with few options but to win the game having suffered two opening losses.
Needless to say, it is by no means the first time that Korea Republic have found themselves in tricky scenarios in World Cup qualifying. They did, on more than one occasion, drop key points which left their campaign in real jeopardy. Despite all sorts of difficulties facing them, however, the South Koreans rose to the test and came on top each time when it mattered most. Not surprisingly, they remain Asia's most successful team by qualifying for the FIFA World Cup for a record nine times.
Many, including fans and media alike, would single out their organisation, relentless attack, tireless running or superior physicality as their major strengths as they are at pain to discover the secrets behind their exceptional successes. But former Taeguk Warriors striker Choi Yongsoo thinks otherwise, attributing their matchless achievements to the team's spirit of playing for the country.
"From my point of view, the South Korean national team have a stronger sense of patriotism and responsibility," the 43-year-old Jiangsu Suning manager told FIFA.com. "To prepare for hard matches like the World Cup qualifiers, the players usually communicate well so they have trust and faith in each other. Patriotism is evident and the chemistry within the team is superb. With the old players being the role models for the youngsters, we believe there are no rivals against whom we can't win. Armed with such spirits and based on our good preparation, we are always the more confident side taking the field."
With 27 goals from 69 international appearances, Choi is among Korea Republic's all-time scoring greats. Despite scoring quite a few important goals for his country, including being on target nine times on the road to France 1998, he singled out his first international goal as the most memorable during his career.
"It was in my national team debut. It was an international A match against Hong Kong," continued Choi. "For the first time, I entered the field donning the national team jersey. I was so excited and proud. I was aware that it was time to do something for my country. I scored once. It was so unforgettable."
Choi was at his prime heading to his World Cup debut at France 1998. He figured in a group match against the Netherlands, which Korea Republic lost 5-0. It was the humiliating loss that made them realise the gap that existed between them and the world's best and made the Koreans feel they had to start all over again.
"It was such a disastrous match which tormented us for a long period," he reflected. "By playing and losing against the top-quality teams, we were aware that we lagged behind the European powerhouses. The loss was painful for us but it provided us with an opportunity to re-examine ourselves."
Then came Dutchman Guus Hiddink, who was appointed as the new manager as Korea Republic aimed to redeem themselves as co-hosts at Korea/Japan 2002. Under the former PSV Eindhoven and Real Madrid coach, the Taeguk Warriors surprised all, including their own supporters, by reaching the last four.
"Coach Hiddink taught us new things," explained Choi, who played in the 1-1 draw against USA. "It was under his guidance that we, for the first time, came to learn what the team spirit should be and how camaraderie could carry us through in tough matches. And we emerged a fearless team against any rivals. He gradually instilled European football theory into our minds by teaching us new tactics, formations and game strategies. Our progress was such that one day we couldn't help letting out a cry of ‘Wow! We can also play this well if we carry forward’".
Fourteen years have elapsed but the legacy left by Hiddink proves lasting. Looking at the current national squad coached by German Uli Stielike, Choi sounds his optimism about the future. "In a sense, this is the best Korea Republic team in history in terms of the team make-up. Quite a few players are plying their trade in top European leagues, where they are making waves. Ki Sungyueng is a consistent performer who is also unselfish. He fits the role as the team captain with his experience and aplomb. Others like Hong Jeongho, Koo Jacheol and Lee Chungyong are also among those spearheading the team."
"It is not a kind draw for us," he concluded, rating their qualifying chances. "Each match will be hard. We can take no team lightly. More importantly, we should unite as a group and play with responsibility and spirit. I believe this team can go to Russia."