South Korea seems to have lost its way in the three years since it reached the Asian Cup final in Australia, where the disappointment of an extra-time defeat to the host was softened by optimism over the side’s potential.
German Uli Stielike, who guided it to that 2015 Sydney final, was sacked last June after defeats in Iran, China and Qatar left South Korea’s hopes of reaching the World Cup finals hanging by a thread.
Shin took over for the final two qualifiers and while he cajoled the side over the line with a pair of nervy 0-0 draws, the Koreans grabbed an automatic spot only as other results went their way, raising fears they would be embarrassed at the World Cup.
Listless defeats to Russia and Morocco in October friendlies heightened the sense of panic in Korea to such an extent that 2002 coach Guus Hiddink was even being touted as a possible saviour. But just as the demands that the popular Dutchman take the reins for Russia were building into a groundswell, everything changed in the blink of an eye. South Korea was a team transformed.
In November, Korea played Colombia off the park in a 2-1 win in Suwon and Serbia was fortunate to escape with a 1-1 draw in Ulsan days later.
South Korea then went through a regional tournament involving North Korea, China and Japan unbeaten at the end of last year before beating Moldova and Latvia, and drawing with Jamaica, in friendlies early in 2018.
Like all good things, however, Korea’s good run had to come to an end, and after back-to-back defeats in Northern Ireland and Poland in March, questions are again being raised about its form heading into the World Cup.
If South Korea is to have any chance of escaping a group that also contains world champion Germany, Sweden and Mexico, it must find a way to get the best out of Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min, who is 25 years old.
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South Korea will be playing at its 10th World Cup finals and the tournament in Russia will mark its ninth consecutive appearance. Its best performance was in 2002 when it co-hosted with Japan, reaching the semi-finals where it lost to Germany. It has not been past the last 16 since.
South Korea lost back-to-back friendlies against Northern Ireland and Poland in March, conceding five goals as its porous backline was exposed time and time again. Shin has been experimenting with formations and players since the start of the year but has yet to find the right formula.
South Korea will have to play out of their skins if it is to escape a group that also includes Germany, Mexico and Sweden. Facing the world champion last in Group F, it will need to make a fast start against Sweden in its opener. Korea have not been beaten in its first game at a World Cup since France 1998 so it will be expecting at least a point against the Swedes. Realistically, second spot is the best it can hope for.
Favourite Son looks to light up World Cup in Russia
Son Heung-min is well on his way to carving out as successful a club career in England as Park Ji-sung did at Manchester United but the free-scoring Spurs forward must now deliver at the World Cup if he is to become one of South Korea’s all-time greats.
Son scored 18 goals in all competitions for Tottenham Hotspur this season, playing a key role in the London club’s march to the Champions League last 16, FA Cup semi-finals and a thirdplace finish in the Premier League.
His positional awareness and explosive pace gives Spurs a real threat from the left wing, and the decision to spend around 22 million pounds ($30.78 million) to sign him from Bayer Leverkusen in 2015 looks like money incredibly well spent. On the international stage, however, Son does not have such an illustrious cast to work with and is typically marked heavily by opposition defences, forcing him to come deeper and deeper in search of the ball.
Son, who has also been deployed as a lone striker for the national team on several occasions, can drift in and out of games when South Korea is starved of possession, struggling to make an impact on the periphery. He has a decent international scoring record, claiming 20 goals from 61 appearances, but does not exert the same kind of influence on games as Park, whose lung-busting runs up and down the flanks offered both attacking opportunities and defensive stability for the Koreans at three World Cups.
Son enjoyed his first taste of the World Cup four years ago in Brazil, scoring in a 4-2 defeat to Algeria as South Korea limped out in the first round, and will be determined to help restore its reputation with a good showing in Russia. He may have another reason for wanting the world to remember his name this summer: the 25-year-old has yet to complete his mandatory 21 months in the South Korean military, an obligation he must begin before he is 27, according to Korean law.