Korea Republic will enter Thursday's opening game in Asia's third qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ against China PR with cause for optimism. The Taeguk Warriors enjoy a superior head-to-head record against the neighbours with 19 wins and only two defeats from 34 previous meetings. And, of course, they are the continent's most successful World Cup side. They also have far more players based in Europe than their rivals.
While few question the home team's chances of building on their proud record at home with another victory, defender Hong Jeongho prefers a more cautious tone. The 27-year-old joined Chinese Super League side Jiangsu Suning in July in a high-profile move from Augsburg, ending a three-season spell with the German Bundesliga club.
"I would like to say that the level of the Chinese Super League is good," Hong told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. "The Chinese players proved to be good when I played against them. This is something beyond my expectations. No team is easy in this qualifying stage. After all, these are Asia's top 12 teams. We should prepare ourselves carefully and work hard for each game."
The home supporters can count on Hong's experiences and knowledge of China as they seek a positive start against their neighbours. But when the centre-back decided to leave FC Augsburg for Jiangsu last month, his move sparked media criticism who questioned the wisdom of giving up on a Bundesliga career to play in the Chinese Super League. Now a month after his transfer to Jiangsu, Hong believes that his decision has been proven to be the right one.
"There is a gap in pace and competition between (the Chinese Super League and Bundesliga)," he explained. "But I won't lose my form and shape just because I play here (in China). As a foreign player, I want to play a key role and prove myself through my performances. There are quite a few star-imports in the league and I can learn and improve by rubbing shoulders with them."
The Chinese Super league is attracting world-class stars.
Notable among those supporting his move is Korea Republic coach Uli Stielike, who has called up as many as five Chinese Super League-based players, including Hong, into the squad for the opening game against China and the next outing against Syria in neutral Macau five days later.
"As early as last winter I learned that Hong was chased by a Chinese club," the German said. "But the move isn't a bad thing, is it? The Chinese Super league is attracting world-class stars so Korean players are lucky if they receive an offer."
An all-round defender, Hong first made his name representing Korea Republic at the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt, where he appeared in all five matches as the side reached the last eight. The next year saw his emergence on the domestic scene as he helped Jeju United to an unexpected runners-up finish in the K League, performances which earned him a place in the season's best eleven.
His defensive talents didn't go unnoticed by clubs from beyond the K League with Augsburg swooping three years ago. It was with the German side that Hong made further progress in terms of technique and mentality, a fact which the player was quick to acknowledge.
"The Bundesliga experiences were important for me," reflected Hong, who made 61 outings for the Bavarian club, including scoring three times. "Although I didn't play each match, I am glad that I have played and scored in both league and European competitions. I learned new things during my training and playing in Germany, all of which enriched my understanding of football. There are plenty of outstanding players in Bundesliga, who possess pace, strength and superb skills. You can certainly improve yourself by training and playing together with them."
Having started all three matches at Brazil 2014 on his World Cup debut where Korea Republic failed to progress beyond the group phase, Hong is relishing the chance of a second appearance for the global extravaganza. “There is little to say but to train hard and do my best for the national team. I hope I can continue to provide any help to team-mates and that we have a smooth qualifying campaign for Russia 2018.”