Wednesday, March 17, 2010

2010 World Cup Could Have Been Korea Reunion

South Korea.
The World Cup is always exciting but for fans of South Korea, June 2010 is going to be fascinating.

If being in a group with South American powerhouse Argentina, 2004 European champions Greece and African giant Nigeria wasn’t exciting enough, there could be some familiar faces around this summer.

Pim Verbeek is one. The Dutchman was the assistant coach at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and then took the helm in July 2006 for a period of one year during which he led South Korea to third place at the 2007 Asian Cup. As soon as the competition finished, so did Verbeek’s time in the Land of the Morning Calm and he resigned.

A few months later, he surfaced in Australia, after Dick Advocaat, South Korea’s 2006 World Cup boss, refused the job, Verbeek took charge. Charged with leading the Socceroos to South Africa, the laconic European did just that.

Australia strolled through qualification and finds itself in a tough-looking group with European heavyweight Germany, talented Ghana and a tough-looking Serbian team. Such a line-up reads slightly scarier than the one at the Asian Cup which involved Indonesia, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia but Verbeek is feeling confident.

“I can honestly say there was one word that shot through my mind when we came out in a group with Germany – great!” He wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.

"It's the second-toughest group overall, I'm sure about that. But when the stakes are so high, we'll be up for a fight. Germany are very strong…Over the years they have shown how successful you can be with a team that works together.

"Ghana are playing on their home continent but that's a double-edged sword. They will have support for sure, but as with Germany will also face pressure to live up to the fans' expectations. We beat them last year in a friendly in Sydney, though neither side was at its strongest. Serbia will be quick but also strong.”

Verbeek will always have a special place in the hearts of South Korean fans. As well as his time in charge of the national team, he will be remembered as an assistant to Guus Hiddink in 2002.

Hiddink took Australia to the 2006 World Cup and after subsequent spells with the Russian national team and a temporary job in charge of London club Chelsea, it looked for a time as if the man, who was granted honorary citizenship of Korea after his exploits with the Taeguk Warriors, was going to be at the 2010 World Cup.

The well-travelled tactician takes the Turkey job in August, leaving a window of opportunity to take the vacant Ivory Coast position though he has since ruled himself out. It would have made for an even more fascinating Group G. The talented Africans, defeated 2-0 by South Korea in a recent warm-up in London, have been placed in a group with Brazil, Portugal and North Korea. South Korean fans were already looking forward to seeing how their northern neighbors perform in such a tough environment but the addition of Hiddink into the mix would have been the egg on the top of that particular bi-bim-bap.

Hiddink was also in the frame for the Nigeria job that was vacant until earlier this month. He didn’t get it but one of his predecessors in Seoul definitely wanted it.

Jo Bonfrere arrived in South Korea in June 2004, took the team through qualification for the World Cup before resigning in August 2005. As the man with past experience with Nigeria, he led the team to the gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics; the Dutchman was desperate for the chance to finally go to the World Cup.

"I know your players very well,” he said last month. "The players have confidence in me, I also have confidence in them, I know what it takes to build a good team for Nigeria, I only needs time for training," he said.

"I always say that Nigeria can beat any team in the world. But you have to build a team to achieve this. There is no problem of players, the players are there, what is needed is just time to build a team. If you give me the job on time, I will build a team that will reach the final of the World Cup in South Africa," he added.

Bonfrere’s predecessor Humberto Coelho, who resigned in May 2003, was also very close to South Africa. He led Tunisia through qualification to the stage where the Carthage Eagles needed just to win their last game in Mozambique to make it to the 2010 World Cup. Tunisia lost and Coelho was out of a job. Another former South Korean assistant coach Afshin Ghotbi is now coach of Iran’s national team and came very close to qualifying for South Africa.

If only all had made it. It would have been a Korean reunion like no other!

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