Wednesday, February 17, 2010

China Crisis Then Tokyo Tonic

South Korean football.
It has been a roller-coaster week for South Korean football. The final week of the Year of the Cow started well, the hump was very difficult to get over but the first day of the Year of the Tiger brought a smile to a nation returning home after the holidays.

The East Asian championships provide three games in quick succession. The biennial tournament held in Tokyo this time, started with an easy 5-0 victory over Hong Kong, continued with a much-lamented 3-0 loss at the hands of China but ended with an entertaining 3-1 win against old rivals Japan in the backyard of the Blue Samurai – the packed National Stadium.

The Hong Kong thrashing was expected but the defeat against China was hard to swallow. Since the two teams first met back in 1978, South Korea had never lost to its giant neighbor to the west. In 27 games, Korea had won 16 and drawn 11. That is some hoodoo. So much so that the Chinese media came up with the concept of 'Koreaphobia’ to try and explain the problem.

But there was no such burden for the Chinese in Tokyo. Yu Hai headed his team in front after five minutes after being given the freedom of the penalty area, Gao Lin took advantage of a schoolboy error from Kwak Tae-hwi midway through the half to extend China’s lead and then, Deng Zhuoxiang scored an impressive third in the second half, dancing round desperate challenges from the Korean defense. The Chinese media was jubilant.

Korean netizens, never slow to form opinions and never shy to express them, were disconsolate. The name ‘Hiddink’ could be heard above the din as a replacement should Huh get the boot. The general consensus though was that, with less than four months before the World Cup is due to start, the time for experimenting was over and that, above all, it was time to get the backline sorted out. For all three Chinese goals were preventable. Such games occur now and again to any team but coming after two years after of unconvincing defending, it was almost the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Huh’s words at the time didn’t make anyone feel better. "That unbeaten record had to end one day," Huh told reporters. "But we had a few players come into the side who weren't in tune with the way we play.

"I'm not afraid. We have to accept the result against China, analyse our mistakes and fix them in time for the Japan game."

Japan had problems of its own. A pre-tournament 0-0 draw with Venezuela was followed by a similar stalemate against China. That game saw the team jeered off the field by fans in Tokyo. Japan coach Takeshi Okada insisted his team was improving but losing 3-1 against a young and fairly inexperienced Korean team means that he will be in for a tough few weeks in the build-up to the World Cup.

It has already started and Okada was forced to declare that he was not going anywhere.

"As I've said before, me and the coaching staff are under contract with the [Japan Football Association] whether we win or lose. It's up to the president and the technical committee to decide my place here.

"I have no intention of bailing out on my players as long as they are behind me."

Huh will now be fine. It wasn’t a pretty win in Tokyo but it was an effective one. It also showed character as the young Taeguk Warriors fell a goal behind to a Yasuhito Endo penalty in the first half. By half-time however, the reds were ahead thanks to a Lee Dong-gook penalty and a deflected shot from young FC Seoul star Lee Sung-ryeol. Late in the game Kim Sung-jae won the game with a fine strike from outside the area.

The win meant that Korea finished second behind China.
"We didn’t achieve our objective of winning the competition so I apologize to the fans,” said Huh. “We may have some difficulties at the moment as we are trying out lots of players. We are discovering some good domestic-based players but I can’t say who. We will watch them in the K-League and then decide.”

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