Back in September 2008 when South Korea struggled to a 1-1 draw with North Korea in the opening match of the final round of qualification for 2010 World Cup, few would have thought that the departure of coach Huh Jung-moo would be a cause for sadness and concern.
Almost two years ago, the issue was all about whether a lacklustre looking eleven would reach South Africa at all – last week Huh admitted that he considered resigning after the Shanghai stalemate. In the end, there was little need to worry as the Taeguk Warriors marched into the last 16 of an overseas World Cup for the first time ever and can even regard themselves a little unlucky to go down 2-1 to Uruguay in Port Elizabeth.
The players left the Rainbow Nation with their Togel heads held high and Huh leaves his post in similarly upright fashion. The 2-0 win over Greece started the campaign in style and the incisive football and the pleasing technical ability of the players were hailed around the world. The 4-1 defeat against Argentina came against a team at the top of its game and the 2-2 tie with Nigeria that sent Korea into the Promised Land may not have been a perfect display but it was thrilling entertainment – not least for the 500,000 or so fans who took to the streets at 3.30 in the morning.
If there are any regrets it comes in the form of the knockout match against a solid Uruguay team. Trailing to an early goal, Korea pushed the South American semi-finalists evermore on to the backfoot. Lee Chung-yong grabbed an equalizer and the Asian team had chances to score again both before and after Luis Suarez’s late strike that eventually won the game.
It was expected that Huh would step down after the tournament but the success of the team prompted hopes and then reports that he may stay on at least for long enough to lead the team to the Asian Cup in January. The theory was that with the same coach and a similar set of players then Korea has a genuine chance of winning the continental competition for the first time since 1960.
Last Friday however, Huh finally confirmed that he was vacating the hotseat.
“I’m out of competition for the job,” he told reporters in Seoul. “I’ve reached this early decision so the KFA won’t have much burden in choosing the next national team coach.”
“It’s not exactly resignation because my contract expired at the end of the Korean World Cup campaign,” he said. “I’m content with what the national team has achieved this time. Now I would like some time to recharge with my family.”
It was not easy for the braver of his relatives who read some of the criticism that came Huh’s way during the early stages of qualification and then a shock 3-0 loss against China in February –the first time ever that Korea had lost to its giant neighbor. Overall though, Huh will be remembered well.
After the slow start, the team picked up and qualified smoothly for the World Cup despite being placed in a tough group. Then the World Cup itself was a success with Korean players such as Park Chu-young, Park Ji-sung and Lee Chung-yong winning plaudits in the international media.
Huh also demonstrated that going local can pay dividends. There may have been concern within the KFA a couple of years ago at the way things were going but the body stuck with its coach and was rewarded with a place in the second round. Financially the World Cup is very important to the KFA and doing well just increases those benefits. The same can be said of the fact that this success wasn’t achieved by a big-name highly-paid foreign coach but by the man who was taken from K-League club Chunnam Dragons. Huh’s success is going to make it more likely the next man is Korean.
The KFA’s international committee deals with such matters and meets on Wednesday for initial discussions. As usual in these matters, the media has got there first. Hong Myong-bo, the captain of the 2002 team that reached the semifinals would be a popular choice but the ‘eternal libero’ is in charge of the 2012 London Olympics challenge, has never coached a club team and has already said ‘thanks but no thanks.’
There are few other options that spring to mind. Kim Hak-bom enjoyed success with Seongnam Ilhwa before stepping down in December 2008 and he is available and has experience of winning the K-League. Huh’s assistant Jung Hae-sung is also in the frame.
Others, both domestic and foreign will be added over the coming days and weeks.