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Assessing the Current State of Football in South Korea

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Assessing the Current State of Football in South Korea
(Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Come the World Cup, much attention will once again be placed upon a Japan side that lit up the Confederations Cup this summer, despite finishing bottom of the highly competitive Group A.

Next summer, though, with a lower overall standard of opponent, they should stand a good chance of progression to the knockout rounds and, of the Asian sides involved, they will be far from alone in thinking as such.

Australia are perhaps the weakest of the four qualifiers at present but will head into the tournament under a new coach in Ange Postecolgou, while Iran will be almost completely unknown to the other 31 sides at the competition.

While Japan's glittering creative players will take the headlines, though, it may be that it is Hong Myung-Bo's South Korea side who are worth keeping an eye upon in the run up to Brazil 2014.


Current State of National Side

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Since taking over the reigns from Choi Kang-Hee at the end of a disappointing World Cup qualifying campaign, it is fair to say that Hong Myung-Bo has not had the easiest time of things.

Hong, who captained Korea's best ever side at the 2002 World Cup, also led the country's Under-23 side to a bronze medal at last summer's Olympic Games in London.

However, he was thrown in at the deep-end this summer with the side lacking belief and still dealing with some of the issues that had arisen in the Choi era—which had led to Sunderland's Ki Sung-Yueng being kicked out of the national side due to messages posted about the former manager on Facebook.

The hope now is that Hong—who is of a younger generation than his predecessor and spent time playing outside Korea (albeit in Japan)—will be able to better relate with the likes of Ki—many of whom have moved to Europe at an early age.

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Hong's record thus far should not be overly analysed. At the East Asian Cup, he was dealing with a group of solely domestic-based players and the performances were much better than the results (two draws, one defeat) suggest.

Indeed, had Korea been able to convert any of their numerous chances against both Australia and China, they could well have claimed title success. Poor finishing, though, was the summation of their tournament.

Friendlies since have been a mixed bag, with wins over Haiti and Mali tempered by defeat to Brazil and Croatia and a draw with Peru. All the results, though, are pretty much as would have been expected—although Hong would undoubtedly have hoped for better in the Croatia and Peru fixtures.

It will take time for Hong to rebuild the side as he envisages, but Ki has now been reintroduced and in Son Heung-Min, Koo Ja-Cheol and Kim Bo-Kyung he has three attacking midfielders of considerable ability—all of whom are playing well in top European leagues.

Add in Lee Chung-Yong, who has recovered well from a knee injury at Bolton, and Ji Dong-Won, who shone at Augsberg last season, and it is clear that Hong has talented attacking options to choose from.

It is a matter, though, of finding the right balance and ensuring also that defensively the side is strong—an area Hong has focused much attention on thus far.


Chances at World Cup 2014

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Korea are not going to challenge for the title next summer, but have a good chance of reaching the second round or even a quarter final if they can restore their confidence ahead of next summer.

The current side has better players than the team has ever had, regardless of the performance in 2002, and should be well suited to the hot and humid conditions that Brazil will provide.

"This is a better side than 10 years ago," Goal.com Korea's Jung Jaehoon told Bleacher Report. "This is a generation that grew up watching that success and really took to football thanks to the achievements of the 2002 side."

"Someone like Son Heung-Min would have just been 10 years old at the time of that tournament and his career has been helped by players like Park Ji-Sung before him. They helped to make Korean football respected."

There is no doubt that this current group is technically better than their 2002 predecessors, but standards have risen worldwide and it will be an achievement if they could even get close to the work-rate and team spirit shown by Guus Hiddink's side a decade ago.

In Hong Myung-Bo, who even had a spell at Anzhi Makhachkala as Hiddink's assistant, they could have no one better placed to attempt to recreate that atmosphere.

There are issues, though. Like Japan, Korea lack a top class centre-forward and while Sunderland's Ji can play there, it has not been the position in which he has performed best in Europe.

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Arsenal's Park Chu-Young, meanwhile, was once a regular scorer for his country but is now overlooked. He has not played a minute for his club this season and his World Cup place is currently slipping away.

Goalkeeper is another position that is in need of some work. Regular No. 1 Jung Sung-Ryong has been in poor form lately, and his standing with Korean supporters is low.

Many are advocating the inclusion of Ulsan Hyundai's 23-year-old Kim Seung-Gyu, already the side's backup option, but his chances depend on whether Hong is willing to risk a change at this late stage.

If they can address some of their issues ahead of next summer, there is no reason 2014 cannot be a resounding success. To outperform Japan once more will undoubtedly be the target for many of the Reds' supporters


How Does The Future Look?

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Korean football has every reason to be positive looking ahead to 2018 and beyond. The key components of their current side—Ki, Koo, Son and defender Kim Young-Gwon—are all aged 24 and under, while several others in the squad will not have turned 30 by the time of the next World Cup.

Attacking midfielder Yun Il-Lok of FC Seoul is a very promising player, while forward Ryu Seung-Woo was the team's star at the Under-20 World Cup this summer and, per Arirang.kr, turned down a move to Borussia Dortmund.

The country's Under-23 squad finished in 3rd place at last summer's Olympic Games, while the Under-19 side were Asian Champions last year before reaching the Under-20 World Cup quarterfinals.

Besides that, the country's current Under-17 side strolled through the groups of the AFC Championship only to lose on penalties to eventual winners Uzbekistan. All in all, performances at youth level are highly promising.

Winning the East Asian Cup will also have offered hope. Korea's domestic-based players showed excellence in midfield and were strong in defence. Indeed, had they found a consistent goalscorer, the side could have easily been crowned champions. But, such is football.

Hong will coach the side at next summer's World Cup and almost certainly through to the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia. It will be upon performance at that competition that he is judged, where he will be required to make a strong challenge, at least, for the title.

Korea will not be challenging for World Cup glory just yet, but they have a good chance to become regular attendees in the latter stages of major tournaments. If they can do that, while beating Europe's second-tier sides on a regular basis, then progress will have been made.


K League Classic—Asia's Finest

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Korean domestic football is in excellent condition, if results in the AFC Champions League are anything to go by at least. Korea has had three winners in the past four years of the competition and, over the next fortnight, FC Seoul will attempt to add to that number against Chinese side Guangzhou Evergrande.

Korea, of the three big East Asian leagues (alongside Japan and China), undoubtedly has the best balance between talented domestic players and big-name foreign players. China, for its part, largely doesn't have the domestic talent to support its foreign recruits, while Japan is struggling to attract foreign players as it once could.

While unable, perhaps, to compete financially with Guangzhou Evergrande and some of the money-laden Middle Eastern sides, Korea's top six sides are well backed financially by companies with major economic clout, with the likes of Hyundai and Samsung both prominent in football sponsorship.

While Jung expressed worries that they will be unable to compete with China in the coming years, Korea's domestic talent should enable them to retain near the top for the time being.

K League sides do have a challenge in building supporter numbers, however, with attendances in Korea often surprisingly low even for Champions League clashes with some of the continent's best.

As with much of Asia, Korean fans are often drawn to the big names and bright lights of European football and are prepared to stay up into the early hours of the morning to support their sides.

Attracting these fans to stadia for club matches remains difficult. For the national side, often nicknamed FC Korea due to the club supporter-like passionate nature of its fans, attendance is not a problem.

Ideally, there would be a plan in place to see a major rise in these numbers. However, as Jung points out, football is competing with the hugely popular sport of baseball and, beyond that, has only a limited population in many cities to draw upon—Seoul being the center of it all.

Whilst there are undoubtedly concerns that the incredible money being spent in other Asian leagues will see Korean sides unable to compete in the coming years, the league is the best balanced and best performing of all those in Asia at present.

Most importantly, it is a division very much headed in the right direction, that is producing local talent in numbers not seen before.


Conclusion

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Over the coming years, South Korea will continue to be at the forefront of Asian football internationally and will no doubt hope to claim the Asian Cup title in 2015—a competition in which they have performed surprisingly poorly in recent years.

They will have tough competition, primarily from Japan and hosts Australia, but have a squad with enough talent to seal title success if they can resolve remaining balance issues.

Performances at youth level and the continued improvement of home-based talent suggest that, over the coming years, performances should continue to be strong.

Korean football is proud of its successes in the AFC Champions League and, as competition increases from Chinese, Thai and even Uzbeki sides in the early stages of the tournament, it will be interesting to see how the K League's finest can respond.

All things considered, there is a positive vibe surrounding the country's football setup at present that even a recent debate over what format the K League Classic should take cannot damage.

The growth of Korean football has been organic and it has created a system built on a solid base that many of their rivals could only dream of.

As an ever increasing number of Korean players head to the Bundesliga and the Premier League in particular, experience in top-level competition will increase and should aid performance at international level.

First and foremost, pulling together the current squad to perform well in Brazil next summer is the biggest priority for Hong Myung-Bo and his seniors in the Korean football hierarchy.

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