Today we continue our profiles of the 32 nations to have qualified for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. We are doing this in reverse alphabetical order, and today we profile South Korea.
The Tigers of Asia will be participating in their twelfth World Cup in Qatar and their fifth qualification in a row since co-hosting the 2002 World Cup with Japan. Their best showing was coming in fourth in the 2002 World Cup. Since qualifying for Qatar, South Korea has played seven preparatory friendlies and have a 4-2-1 record, with impressive wins over Chile (2-0) and Egypt (4-1) and tough losses to Brazil (1-5) and Japan (0-3). They were one of four AFC qualifying teams alongside Iran, Japan, and Saudi Arabia.
Placed in Group H with Portugal, Uruguay, and Ghana, the 28th-ranked South Koreans feel it will take a big performance to break out of a group with the favored Portuguese and Uruguayans. Most pundits have them leaving at the group stage, but they have beaten the odds before, such as their 2-0 win over Germany in Russia (World Cup 2018) or their 2-1 win over Italy in 2002.
South Korea (AFC)
The Korean peninsula is known to have been inhabited as early as the Lower Paleolithic period. The nation’s size is 38,623 square miles of mostly non-arable mountainous land and about 30% consisting of lowlands. The climate is humid continental and humid subtropical, but their winters are bitterly cold with average temperatures below freezing while the summer months can reach the mid-80sF. The first Korean Kingdom is known from Chinese records to have taken place in 600 BC and a short succession of long-lived kingdoms and dynasties followed. The last Korean Empire was annexed by Japan in 1910 and lasted until Japan’s surrender after WWII. North and South Korea ensued as separate entities following the war when unification negotiations failed. Today, South Korea is a unitary presidential constitutional republic with its current constitution dating to 1988.
South Korea has 51.7M inhabitants who speak Korean, are 95% ethnically Korean, and over 56% of them profess no religion with 28% being Christians and 16% Buddhists. Their GDP is $2.735Trillion, the 14th highest in the world, and their Human Development Index score is 0.916 (very high). Despite the large influence of its neighbors China and Japan, Korea has developed its unique culture and among its biggest exports are its popular music such as K-pop with BTS its top exponent, and the 2012 global sensation Gangman Style by Psy.
Squad (which may change before the cup given injuries, form and coaching choices—teams mentioned are subject to change given transfers): Goalkeepers—Kim Seung-gyu (Kashiwa Reysol), Kim Dong-jun (Jeju United), Jo Hyeon-woo (Ulsan Hyundai), and Song Bum-keun (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors); Defenders—Lee Yong (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), Kim Jin-su (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), Hong Chul (Daegu FC), Kim Moon-hwan (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), Jung Seung-hyun (Gimcheon Sangmu), Kim Young-gwon (Ulsan Hyundai), Kwon Kyung-won (Gamba Osaka), Kim Tae-hwan (Ulsan Hyundai), Cho Yu-min (Daejon Hana Citizen), and Park Min-gyu (Suwon FC); Midfielders— Jung Woo-young (Al-Sadd), Hwang In-beom (FC Seoul), Na Sang-ho (FC Seoul), Paik Seung-ho (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), Hwang Hee-chan (Wolves), Jeong Woo-yeong (Freiburg), Song Min-kyu (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), Ko Seung-beom (Gimcheon Sangmu), Kim Jin-kyu (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), and Kim Dong-hyun (Gangwon FC); Strikers—Son Heung-min (Tottenham), Hwang Ui-jo (Bordeaux), and Cho Gue-sung (Gimcheon Sangmu).
Path to Qatar
South Korea qualified directly to Qatar from the AFC’s third round of qualifiers coming in second to Iran in Group A with two games to spare and compiling twice as many points as its next opponent. Their Portuguese Coach, Paulo Bento, has infused the team with a belief in their capabilities and captain and top player Son Heung-min continues to be a top Premier League striker.
South Korea has employed a 4-3-2-1 lately with Bento favoring more controlled attacking rather than the more direct and speedy style traditionally attributed to the Taeguk Warriors (as they are also known). The team has always been good defensively and they are known for their speed and physicality, but Bento knows it will be their technical skills that will determine their success and he has relied most on his European-based stars—at Wolves, Freiburg, Bordeaux, and Tottenham—to keep the edge sharp.
The team’s captain is its top player—Son Heung-min—who continues to be a top Premier League striker with Tottenham Hotspurs. Given the talent gap between Son and the rest of his teammates, it is difficult to see that the team has other quality players, but it is their traditional overall attributes that will make the team competitive at Qatar, all Bento can do is pick his best eleven and hope they are healthy and in form come November.
Group and Tourney Prospects
The South Koreans have no illusions about the work they have in front of them to progress from their tough group. But as was the case in 2018 they are ready, willing, and often able to provide the one-of-surprise. It has been their poor early showing in the qualifiers which has them out of sorts. Even though they have been able to weather poor runs of form and qualified with ease in Asia, they are aware that it is the European and South American sides that provide the global sports yardstick.
Their success against tough Egyptian and Chilean opposition were wake-up calls, they know they have some talent and the ability to apply Bento’s strategies but it is when they come against the likes of a Brazil that they get demolished. Fortunately for the South Koreans, their group will provide the lesser stars of the European and South American constellations and thus, a chance. Unfortunately, the Uruguayans are one of the toughest B teams to play in any World Cup and Portugal is on a mission—Cristiano Ronaldo’s last hurrah. Given those singular circumstances, though, the South Koreans will need major breaks, plural, to progress.
Photo: Heung-Min Son – Shutterstock ID: 729695689 by Alizada Studios