Korea Republic captain Kwak Tae-Hwi seemed to be the only one not smiling after the morale-boosting 4-2 home win over Uzbekistan on Saturday. With Korea Republic facing the prospect of an unthinkably early elimination from Brazil 2014 qualifying, these are nervous times for the eight-time FIFA World Cup™ finalists. Indeed, the colossal centre-back presented an air of genuine annoyance after the match despite the impressive scoreline.
The Taeguk Warriors took a three-goal lead midway through the first half in Jeonju before conceding twice in the closing minutes, only to confirm victory during added time. The result would have pleased coach Choi Kang-Hee and some of the veterans who had returned to the squad, but for Kwak there was no time to celebrate his debut as South Korean skipper.
“I didn’t have time to think about anything else,” Kwak told FIFA.com after the game. “I don’t think I should do or show something in particular just because I’m wearing the armband. But I’m responsible for helping the boys play their game while also trying to control myself so I can get the job done. I’m not the frontman kind who leads others, but a quiet guy who encourages them to achieve the goal.”
In fact, Kwak, along with the two-goal hero Lee Dong-Gook, attacking midfielder Kim Do-Heon, wingers Kim Chi-Woo and Lee Keun-Ho, are all seeking a form of salvation from past misfortune. They all had important roles in the qualifying campaigns for the past two FIFA World Cups, before narrowly missing South Africa 2010 due to injury or other reasons.
A central defender renowned for his aerial ability and a knack of scoring crucial goals, the 31-year-old Kwak was one of the first-choice centre-halves under former coach Huh Jung-Moo. But Kwak could not make the plane to South Africa, after suffering an injury to his left knee during an international against Belarus in the build-up.
Three years on, Kwak has been given another chance to prove himself, and this time around he is set to do it as a leader of the group, having also captained his club Ulsan Horangi to second in last season’s K-League. Under Kwak’s leadership, the Tigers flirted on the brink of elimination to qualify for the play-offs before finishing within a whisker of winning their third title.
“We’re always playing to win the games, and it’s good to score the goals to win,” Kwak said of the Taeguk Warrior’s four-goal effort against Uzbekistan. “Our defenders are tall and have the advantage in set-piece situations. We’ve trained a lot for that and if we have a kind of telepathy with the kicker, we can score more goals in competitive matches as well.”
“But as a defender I have to focus on not conceding the goals in the first place. I feel bad when I see the opposition score, and I really hate to let them do that,” he added.
Korea Republic are to take on Kuwait on Wednesday in their final group match of the third round, and although a single point will be enough for the hosts to progress into the final qualifying stage, Kwak is determined to lead his side through in style.
“It’s a one-off match where we must get a good result. We cannot afford to lose this one, and we should concentrate on defending so they cannot get what they want,” Kwak concluded. “We will, and we must win.”