(Yonhap Feature) Shocking loss reminds coach, team of their mission
By John Duerden
DOHA, Nov. 18 (Yonhap) -- Images of the Middle East usually involve deserts and unrelenting sunshine, but there was a cold wind cutting across a grey Beirut on Tuesday afternoon, and it has blown South Korea's previously smooth progression to the final stage of qualification for the 2014 World Cup into stormy waters. As the Korean players quickly returned to their bus ready for the long journey home, fans in Lebanon were starting to celebrate one of their team's greatest victories.
A 2-1 defeat against Lebanon is one of the biggest shocks in Asian soccer in years and the worst result in a competitive game for Korea since a 0-0 tie with the Maldives in 2004. The West Asian team is ranked just 146 by world governing body FIFA and means that South Korea's coach Cho Kwang-rae now has three uncomfortable months to look forward to as Korea must wait until the end of February before it can erase memories of Beirut when it takes on Kuwait in Seoul. If Lebanon defeats bottom team United Arab Emirates on the same day, a Korean loss would end all hopes of an eighth successive appearance at the World Cup, less than 18 months after the end of the 2010 edition.
Ahead of the game, Korea needed just a point to join Australia, Japan, Jordan, Iran, Iraq and Uzbekistan in the final round of qualification for the tournament. Twenty teams started the third round of qualification in September, divided into five groups of four. The top two from each group progress to the final round. There, ten teams battle it out for Asia's four automatic places at the World Cup.
South Korea's coach Cho Kwang-rae looks on during a World Cup qualifying match against Lebanon in Beirut on Nov. 15, 2011. (Yonhap file photo)
The defeat and the possibility, though still small, of the team failing to make the final round has heightened concerns whether the coach's desire for attractive, fast-paced passing soccer sometimes overshadows the pragmatic need that every team has to pick up points during qualification, especially in difficult conditions away from home.
When it comes to the World Cup, the Korea Football Association (KFA) is in no doubt as to what really matters. Prior to the Lebanon defeat, when it was expected that Korea would soon be in the final stage, Park Yong-soo, head of the body's international department, explained the KFA's longstanding philosophy when it comes to qualification for any World Cup. It is one that every federation would share.
"Performances are important but not as important as results in this kind of situation. It is always good to play well and play good soccer, but in qualification games, the result is what matters," said Park.
He pointed to the recent Asian Champions League final between Jeonbuk Motors of South Korea and Qatar's Al Sadd as an example. Jeonbuk dominated much of the match but lost after a penalty shootout.
"Jeonbuk played well, but in the end, the team lost and missed the chance to be the champions of Asia. The performance was secondary to the result," Park said.
For all countries, qualification for the world's biggest tournament is of huge importance from a business viewpoint as well as soccer due to prize money, more sponsorship money and increased commercial activity. "The most important and most meaningful aspect for South Korean soccer is that the national team appears at an eighth consecutive World Cup," said Park.
"This is what we hope happens. So in that respect, we will be happy to move to the next phase of qualification because that will mean that the mission has been accomplished."
Since he took over in July 2010, Cho has stressed the need for attractive soccer as well as results. Unlike South America or Europe where teams play just one stage in order to determine who goes to the World Cup, in Asia, there are two phases for the strongest teams while the weaker ones have a longer path to follow. This two stage system means that the first part is not just about getting results but also enables teams to prepare themselves for the much tougher tests in the final round when the ten best teams in Asia will meet.
The progress of the team in Cho's first year was encouraging. He led Korea to third place at the 2011 Asian Cup with a group of young players who impressed with their talent and ability to play incisive soccer, but a comprehensive 3-0 defeat to Japan in August ended his honeymoon period with the media.
That result meant that Cho had to start World Cup qualification in September well and he did just that with a 6-0 win over Lebanon in a home match on Sept. 2. A 1-1 tie in Kuwait four days later was less impressive but was a reasonable result. Cho's men returned to winning ways by defeating United Arab Emirates 2-1 at home and then traveled to Dubai on Nov. 11 to win 2-0. Only a point was needed in Lebanon to confirm the team's place.
The loss has led to criticism from the media and fans.
South Korea's national football team returns to Seoul on Nov. 16, 2011, after a shocking defeat to Lebanon in a World Cup qualifying match. South Korea has to wait and win the match against Kuwait in February to clinch a berth in the final round. (Yonhap file photo)
There were mitigating circumstances. Korea was without a number of its best players. Midfielder Ki Sung-yong was ill, while the English Premier League duo of Lee Chung-yong and Park Chu-young were injured and suspended, respectively. Park's absence was particularly felt as the Arsenal striker has scored eight goals in the last five games for his country. The playing surface in Beirut was also sub-standard and didn't allow the team to play the passing game that coach Cho is trying to instill in his players.
""The players and I have to reflect on the performance," said Cho as he arrived back in South Korea on Wednesday. "I am disappointed that we did not meet expectations, and want to apologize to the fans. We will prepare as well as possible for the final game against Kuwait."
Now the Kuwait game is a much bigger occasion than anyone would have thought before Tuesday, despite the fact that a tie will be enough. In the long-term, that could help the team stay focused, but the next three months promise to be uncertain ones for South Korean soccer.