Saturday, September 13, 2008

Same Again In Shanghai

South Korean soccer.
There was no Shanghai Surprise. The only surprise was that some thought it was going to be any different. It could have been worse though, that was the one consolation for the few South Korean fans who, late Wednesday evening, had sat through a typically turgid Korean Derby. 1-1 was the score between the near neighbors in their 2010 World Cup qualification match in Shanghai, China.

There were less than 1,000 fans present in Shanghai's Hongkou Stadium - a far cry from the 25,000 plus that watched March's match. Apart from the loss of the novelty factor as well as the will to live, the main reason for the difference in the fact that North Korea hiked ticket prices by around 500% for the cheapest tickets -the 'hosts'(the game had been moved from Pyongyang to Shanghai after communist authorities in North Korea refused to fly the southern flag and play the anthem) didn't want their fans to be as heavily outnumbered as before.

The tie was the fourth straight stalemate between the two rivals in 2008 alone but after Hong Yong-jo shot the northern team ahead from the penalty spot in the second half, the Taeguk Warriors were relieved to come away from China with a point.

That came courtesy of teenage midfielder Ki Sung-yung. The FC Seoul player is nicknamed ‘South Korea’s Gerrard’ due to his supposed resemblance to the Liverpool and England star and he showed why after 68 minutes. Chesting down a high ball, the 19 year-old, standing at the edge of the area, swiveled and then volleyed into the bottom corner. The smattering of southern-supporting fans didn’t care that opposition goalkeeper Ri Myung-guk really should have saved, rather than fell over, the low shot.

Four minutes earlier, Hong had put the 1966 World Cup quarter-finalists ahead after he was fouled by southern skipper Kim Nam-il. The busy and speedy Hong was the best player on the pitch and is one that would be welcomed by coach Huh Jung-moo if he ever decided to defect.

If he wants World Cup football, he may find that staying north of the 38th Parallel is a better bet. North Korea sits proudly on top of Group Two with four points from two games, following an impressive 2-1 win in the UAE four days previously. South Korea has one from one and nerves are jangling.

The Seoul media was universally negative about the performance with the word of the night being ‘frustrating’. The headline of the night read: “This isn’t the football we were promised.”

The promised land of South Africa less than two years from now is not an automatic destination for South Korea – it is going to take more inspiration that was on display in China to get there. Coach Huh knows that he is a man under pressure to get a win at home to UAE in Seoul in October.

Huh pointed to the fact that not only was his team missing European-based players such as Park Ji-sung, Lee Young-pyo and Seol Ki-hyeon but just before Wednesday’s match, two-thirds of his forward line, Shin Young-rok and Lee Chung-young were ruled out through injury.

"The sudden injury problems had an influence on the game and put pressure on the players," Huh after the match.

"I am not satisfied with the performance or the result. It was a tough game because of their defence. We knew it would be hard to break down and we tried our best."

Later, Huh tried to look on the bright side. "It's not a bad result all in all. There will be wins and losses in football. I think we have the ability to be a strong side and the players are more than capable."

They are more than capable of defeating UAE in Seoul next month. Failure to do so may not mean the end of World Cup hopes but would almost certainly mean the end of Huh Jung-moo.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com

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