Since his appointment as Korea Republic coach in December, Choi Kang-Hee has been to Europe twice to check the condition of those players based in the Old Continent. If his first trip in February was mainly to see whether then captain Park Chu-Young was fit enough to play against Kuwait in the third round of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, then the second reconnaissance mission last month was primarily focused on Augsburg’s Koo Ja-Cheol and Basel’s Park Joo-Ho, who have been performing well in Germany and Switzerland respectively.
In fact, there was a time when those who were plying their trade in foreign countries were almost automatically called up to the national team. Despite having to overcome long journeys and time difference, the likes of Park Ji-Sung and Lee Young-Pyo were guaranteed their places in the starting XI regardless of match-fitness. That was when there were few alternatives to replace such experienced veterans.
When striker Park Chu-Young was ruled out for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup due to injury, Koo and Ji Dong-Won spearheaded the attack as the Taeguk Warriors finished third in the continental championship. In the process Koo became the top scorer of the tournament and subsequently earned a move to Wolfsburg, while Ji went on to realise his dream of playing in the English Premier League with Sunderland.
However, the duo struggled to establish themselves in their respective clubs last year, although they still made the squad for the third round of qualifying for Brazil 2014 under then coach Cho Kwang-Rae. It was business as usual for Cho, who also seemed to have profound belief in the young forwards like Son Heung-Min of Hamburg and Nam Tae-Hee who was then playing for French outfit Valenciennes.
His successor Choi had different ideas though. “As far as I can see, most of those players in foreign countries are not given many chances in their respective clubs and therefore not fit enough for competitive matches,” Choi said upon his appointment. “So it would be difficult for them to perform well for the national team after training for just a couple of days. That’s why I’m thinking about selecting more players from the K-League, although there’s still time to reconsider.”
World champs to test Korean progress
Korea Republic subsequently reached the fourth round on the back of a 2-0 win at home against Kuwait in February, with home-based strikers Lee Dong-Gook and Lee Keun-Ho both on target in the second half. But arguably the most crucial moment of that game was the 52nd-minute introduction of Celtic’s Ki Sung-Yueng, who were struggling in the middle of the park.
So the question seems to be not so much about selecting European-based players, but about whether Choi can find the right combination before the Taeguk Warriors’ Group A opener in Qatar. The South Koreans are to travel to Switzerland at the end of this month for a friendly with Spain, which will likely see several players tested.
“At first I thought it was not the best timing to call up the players in Europe because they’d be resting after the season. But I have to see them play anyway, and they’d come back home to take a rest otherwise,” Choi said when the match was arranged in March. “We can only learn from such a strong team like Spain, who are technically superior to us, and we can also build up our confidence if we play well against them. I’m going to call up all the players available, especially those who play in foreign countries.”
That said, Choi made it clear that there is little room for experimentation when the qualifiers resume in June, as he told the press when he came back from his recent trip to Germany and Switzerland on Monday. “I saw both of them play for 90 minutes – Koo looked a little bit tired, while Park [Joo-Ho] played a key role for his side,” he said. “Basically, the Spain game will be the last chance for the European-based players and those who had been overlooked so far.”
“I cannot test the players during the final qualifying round and I’ll make the decision based on their ability, performance and experience. Every match is final in the next round.”