Players taking a break – picture by John Duerden
On a surprisingly warm and humid mid-May Monday morning, the South Korean national team players were taking it easy at Paju National Football Center, around 40 kilometres north of Seoul.
Most were reading the newspapers, ones that had front pages covered with the same picture, that of Lee Sung-ryeol and Lee Chung-yong celebrating. Both Togel Hongkong players scored the previous evening in a 2-0 win over Ecuador that started the final phase of preparations for the 2010 World Cup on a high.
It wasn’t a vintage performance but as it marked the first time the European-based players had joined up with the local lads since October 2009, nobody expected an instant clicking together. Ecuador didn’t bring its European-based stars and while the South Americans defended fairly robustly, they didn’t trouble the host too much at the other end of the field.
Some were happier than others. Lee Sung-ryeol had just been introduced as a substitute in the second half when he scored a fine goal. The 21 year-old FC Seoul striker twisted past two yellow-shirted defenders on the edge of the area.
With that shot, the fresh-faced forward probably booked his place on the plane for South Africa but four of his team-mates were not been so lucky.
The mood at Paju seemed relaxed but the unlucky quartet was told on Monday afternoon that their dreams of World Cup glory were over and they would not be part of the twenty-three that will make the final trip to play against Greece in Port Elizabeth on June 12, Argentina in Soweto on June 17 and Nigeria down in Durban on June 22.
Park Ji-sung leads the way – picture by John Duerden
At the end of April, Huh named a preliminary roster of 30, That was reduced to 26 on Monday. Defenders Hwang Jae-won and Kang Min-soo didn’t make the cut while midfielders Kim Chi-woo and, a little surprisingly, Cho Won-hee fell by the wayside.
These drip-drip tactics are not the norm and can be cruel for the players. Three more will have their dreams dashed right at the end when Huh names his final 23 on May 31 but for now, all are happy as they head to Japan for a final warm-up before leaving Asia.
Next Monday’s match in Saitama is a big one for both teams. Talking to Park Ji-sung just before training, he admitted that there was no such thing as a ‘friendly’ match between the two nations. The game has been criticized by sections of the Japanese and Korea press. This thinking goes that two big rivals meeting just before the World Cup is a recipe for injuries. The Manchester United man however said that it was the best chance for the team to sample competitive football before the big event starts.
This time however, it is the Japanese who are more desperate to win than its long-time rival. 2010 has seen a number of poor results at home for the Samurai Blue not least a 3-1 defeat at the hands of South Korea in Tokyo in February. I was present in Osaka in April as a reserve Serbia team won 3-0 to cause a crescendo of jeers to be heard around the Nagai Stadium.
The earlier Korea defeat was when both teams were shorn of their European-based stars. This time will be very different. Japan really will not want to suffer another setback just before it leaves. A third consecutive defeat at home would be tough to take and with the team preparing for a tough World Cup group against the Netherlands, Denmark and Cameroon, confidence would be rocked.
Korea always love to win these games but a defeat wouldn’t be a disaster in terms of the bigger picture however much it may rankle in Seoul. Three comfortable wins – over Japan, Ivory Coast and Ecuador – have the players feeling good.