S. Korean opinion varies on World Cup target
One question has plagued South Korean players since coach Huh Jung-moo stated that his World Cup aim was just to reach the second round: what do they think?
Opinion varies. Veteran fullback Lee Young-pyo rates the squad having a less than 50-50 chance of advancing out of a first-round group containing Argentina, Nigeria and Greece.
Lee Woon-jae, the 36-year-old goalkeeper who helped South Korea reach the semi-finals on home soil in 2002, is more bullish. He doesn't think the campaign can be considered successful unless it involves a second-round win.
South Korea has never progressed past the first round of a World Cup outside Korea in six previous attempts overseas.
The team's road to South Africa started in Asia in February 2008 against Turkmenistan and it leaves Asian soil on May 25 from Tokyo's Narita Airport, the day after a World Cup warm-up against Japan.
It is not often that Asia's biggest football rivals meet on the pitch with minds focused on events elsewhere, but that is what will happen on Monday in Saitama.
For the Koreans, it is the second of four final preparation games prior to its June 12 World Cup opener against Greece at Port Elizabeth.
The third and fourth take place in a training camp in Austria — selected for its high altitude similarities to many South African host cities — against Belarus on May 30 and European champion Spain on June 3.
While Japan coach Takeshi Okada has repeatedly stated a target of a last four finish, to considerable criticism from a Tokyo press that points out the fact that the team has never won a World Cup game overseas, opposite number Huh just wants to survive the first stage.
"I wish I could lift [the World Cup] but that would be too ambitious. I believe everything should be done step by step. Our initial goal in South Africa is to reach the second round," Huh said last month.
It is the main topic in the Seoul sports media and every player is asked about it.
"We have to be objective," Lee Young-pyo said. "I think we have a 40 per cent chance of reaching the second round; the chances of not progressing are higher."
But Lee Woon-jae is settling for that.
"We don't consider … the top 16 as our goal. That would be a case of things not turning out well. We can do better than reaching the top 16."
The stuttering form of the 36 year-old goalkeeper, however, provides one of the headaches for Huh in the lead up to South Africa. A star of South Korea's campaigns in 2002 and 2006, Lee ended the first half of the domestic season dropped from his K-League club's starting lineup.
The veteran of 129 internationals was also left out by coach Huh in last Sunday's 2-0 win over Ecuador in Seoul in favour of Jung Sung-ryeong, eleven years his junior. If Jung, who has played just 14 times for his country, starts against Japan it is likely he will keep his place for the World Cup.
Back in June last year, when South Korea qualified for the World Cup without losing any of its 14 qualifying games, it wasn't a problem that coach Huh expected to have but given the respective form of the two goalkeepers this season, the switch could actually strengthen the team.
The vulnerability in the center of defence has been a long-standing issue, but with just one penalty kick goal conceded in recent exhibition wins over Japan, Ivory Coast and Ecuador, the focus of concern has switched to attack.
Star striker Park Chu-young is struggling for fitness. The AS Monaco forward just recovered from a February injury in France when he damaged a hamstring in the French Cup final in early May.
Park will be fit in time for South Africa, and could even play some part against Japan. But as a player notoriously slow to return to peak condition after injury it is not the kind of news that coach Huh needs, especially as partner Lee Dong-guk also has a hamstring problem.
Lee had just recovered from a previous ankle injury and as "The Lion King" missed the 2006 World Cup after a serious ligament problem, there are concerns. The 2009 K-League top scorer has declared that he will be fit by the end of the month but it does leave South Korea's attack looking a little rusty going into the vital Greece opener.
All teams have issues, however, and South Korea has fewer headaches than some rivals. Young striker Lee Sung-ryeol came off the bench to score a fine goal against Ecuador on Sunday to stake his claim and English Premier League star Lee Chung-yong added a second.
"We do have our weaknesses," Huh said. "But in every game, my players are full of passion and have a fighter's spirit. Our determination to win, our desire for success and coherence as a team is second to none in the world. You can easily break a single branch, but when it's a bundle, it's a different story."