Saturday, August 13, 2005

Bonfrere Under Fire

Bonfrere Under Fire.
“Disgrace,” “No strategy!” and “Time to go,” were some of the more restrained headlines in the Korean media after a week of poor results in the East Asian Football Cup.

Inevitably, the accompanying pictures showed Coach Jo Bonfrere looking more forlorn than usual as his players failed to beat either China or North Korea and were defeated by Japan - all on home turf.

The competition, won by South Korea in December 2003, was supposed to mark the start of the country’s preparations for the World Cup instead it has signalled the beginning of open season against the Dutchman.

It was supposed to be a chance for some of the K-League’s young prospects to show what they could do in the absence of European stars like Park Ji-sung and Lee Young-pyo but it demonstrated that without the talented duo, South Korea’s midfield lacks creativity and incisiveness.

And it was supposed to be a chance for the hosts to show that they were the region’s top dogs but one goal, two points and last place put paid to any hopes of that.

Accusations that Bonfrere is tactically stubborn and too ready to blame his players for his own failings, had gone from the headlines after World Cup qualification was assured a game ahead of schedule but they weren’t forgotten and they soon resurfaced after two dismal draws against China and North Korea.

Both teams, ranked well below their hosts in FIFA's rankings, defended in numbers – China had to as they were reduced to ten men after only six minutes. The problem was that the 2002 semi-finalists never really looked like scoring. The only player to get on the scoresheet was a defender, Kim Jin-kyu, who rifled home a free-kick past the Chinese goalkeeper.

Kim Jung-woo, Kim Sang-shik and Yang Sang-min, drafted into midfield for the first two games looked fairly solid defensively, though given the circumstances, they weren’t tested too much in that department, but they offered little going forward.

The inability to create chances hasn’t been a big problem for the team in recent history; rather it has been the failure to convert those opportunities which has worried Guus Hiddink’s successors – Humberto Coelho and Jo Bonfrere.

Matters improved somewhat in the final game with Japan in Daegu. South Korea dominated the game but still failed to convert possession into chances and they were caught in the 87th minute as the Asian Champions gave their 2002 co-hosts a lesson in taking chances.

Unsurprisingly, fingers were pointed at Bonfrere who had said before the competition – “our target? Three games and three wins.” After three games and no wins, his tune had changed somewhat, “if you look at our target, it was all about testing the players who play in Korea.”

Such backtracking didn’t impress the public. Results of internet polls were released showing that over 90% of respondents wanted a new coach - and the KFA gave Bonfrere lukewarm support. "His contract is still safe but I don't think the KFA should ignore public and media calls forever", declared You Young-cheul, media director for the Korea Football Association.

Perhaps Bonfrere should be worried as he has never been liked by the media and public. He is unemotional, shows no passion and obviously dislikes talking to the media – all traits that are opposite to his compatriot and predecessor, Guus Hiddink.

Still, it would be harsh to fire the former coach of Nigeria for three poor results in a fairly unimportant tournament, especially as he has just completed the really important job of reaching a sixth successive World Cup. It would be slightly ironic as Humberto Coelho was sacked for poor qualifying results just four months after lifting the East Asian title in December 2003 - the signals coming from the KFA would be confusing to say the least, if Bonfrere receives the boot for the opposite situation.

It is impossible to know the future, of course, but football fans and newspapers all too easily forget the past. Hiddink was almost constantly criticized during his 18 month tenure and suffered worse defeats than Bonfrere. Losing to Canada just four months before the beginning of the World Cup was one low as was two successive 5-0 defeats at the hands of France and the Czech Republic in the summer of 2001.

It is a measure of the pressure that the present coach is under that he has called-up Lee Young-pyo from PSV Eindhoven, FC Metz’s Ahn Jung-hwan and Cha Du-ri from Eintracht Frankfurt for August 17th's inconsequential World Cup Qualifying game with Saudi Arabia. Park Ji-sung will remain in Manchester as Alex Ferguson was assured by the Korean coach that the 24 year-old wouldn't be necessary for the fixture.

What is necessary in the final game of qualifying is a win, and a much better performance.

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