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(News Focus) After long, bumpy road, S. Korea qualify for 2018 FIFA World Cup

2017/09/06 02:50

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By Joo Kyung-don

TASHKENT, Sept. 5 (Yonhap) -- It has been a long and bumpy road, but South Korea on Tuesday realized their dream of making it to their ninth consecutive World Cup finals here.

The men's national football team secured a spot at the 2018 FIFA World Cup after clinching the second place in Group A in the final Asian qualifying round with a scoreless draw with Uzbekistan.

In the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the top two teams from Group A and B in the final round directly advance to the World Cup, while two third-placed teams need to go through playoff rounds to clinch a spot at the football's showpiece event. South Korea were in Group A with Iran, Uzbekistan, Syria, Qatar and China.

With Iran already determined as the group winners after just eight matches, South Korea were in a dogfight to take the last automatic qualification spot. Heading into the last match in the final round, South Korea were hanging on to second place with 14 points, just two points above Syria and Uzbekistan.

South Korea's initial hope was to confirm a World Cup spot by beating Uzbekistan. They were instead held by Uzbekistan, but the Taeguk Warriors were fortunate to advance to the World Cup after Syria and Iran played to a 2-2 draw.

South Korean players throw their head coach Shin Tae-yong in the air in celebration after qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup following a scoreless draw against Uzbekistan at Bunyodkor Stadium in Tashkent on Sept. 5, 2017. (Yonhap) South Korean players throw their head coach Shin Tae-yong in the air in celebration after qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup following a scoreless draw against Uzbekistan at Bunyodkor Stadium in Tashkent on Sept. 5, 2017. (Yonhap)

The road to Russia wasn't all that pretty to South Korea. It involved a series of nail-biting moments, fans' outcry and even a coaching change before Tuesday's result saved South Korean football from despair.

South Korea's quest to the 2018 World Cup started with the appointment of Uli Stielike in the fall of 2014. After suffering a group stage exit at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with one draw and two losses, South Korea hired the 62-year-old German in September 2014 with a mission of leading the national team to the 2018 World Cup.

After taking a runner-up finish at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in January, Stielike's team began the second round of the Asian World Cup qualification against Lebanon, Kuwait, Laos and Myanmar.

South Korea were one of the 34 AFC members that had a bye through the first qualifying round based on their FIFA rankings.

South Korea were perfect in the second round from June 2015 to March 2016, as they reeled off eight straight wins -- including a 3-0 win by forfeit over Kuwait -- while scoring 27 goals and giving up none. During that period, South Korea were unstoppable as they also claimed the EAFF East Asian Cup, featuring Japan, North Korea and China.

However, things took a different turn in the final round, which began in September 2016.

South Korea started with a 3-2 win in Seoul over China and a scoreless draw against Syria. Stielike's side managed to get a 3-2 win against Qatar at home in October 2016, but concerns were rising after they fell to Iran 1-0 in Tehran with a hapless performance.

By that time, local fans started to question Stielike's ability, with some calling for his head. Stielike earned a bit of breathing room when South Korea defeated Uzbekistan 2-1 at home in November 2016. But South Korea's performance still couldn't meet the fans' expectations -- all of their victories were decided by just one goal, and they were scoreless away from home.

At the halfway point of the final round, South Korea had 10 points with three wins, one draw and one loss. They were just one point behind the group leaders Iran with three wins and two draws, and one point above third-placed Uzbekistan with three wins and two losses.

South Korea kicked off 2017 with hopes of playing more inspired football, but there was no sign of improvement. The team first suffered a stunning 1-0 loss to China on the road in March, which was their first loss to the Asian neighbors since 2010. Despite the defeat, South Korea were fortunate to stay in second place as Uzbekistan also picked up an unexpected loss against Syria on the same day.

South Korea later beat Syria 1-0 at home, but the score wasn't enough to placate angry fans who demanded the Korea Football Association (KFA) sack Stielike.

Amid the mounting pressure, the KFA technical committee in April convened a meeting to discuss Stielike's fate, but decided to keep the former Switzerland and Ivory Coast head coach. The KFA then brought in veteran coach Jung Hae-sung as Stielike's new chief assistant to help with the team's atmosphere.

South Korea and Stielike, however, encountered further trouble against Qatar in June. Despite the two goals scored in Doha -- the team's biggest output in an away match in this qualifying round -- South Korea were upsetted by Qatar 3-2 and failed to turn around the table.

Just days after the defeat, the KFA sacked Stielike, ending his 33-month reign. With only two matches remaining in the final round and just two months left for the next World Cup qualifier, South Korea were suddenly a sinking ship without a skipper.

With little time to contact foreign coaches, South Korea placed their bet on local tacticians and it was Shin Tae-yong who accepted what people called a "poisoned chalice."

  

South Korean men's national football players celebrate with a banner after qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup following a scoreless draw against Uzbekistan at Bunyodkor Stdium in Tashkent on Sept. 5, 2017. (Yonhap) South Korean men's national football players celebrate with a banner after qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup following a scoreless draw against Uzbekistan at Bunyodkor Stdium in Tashkent on Sept. 5, 2017. (Yonhap)

Shin was a reasonable choice for the KFA at the time since he was familiar with the national team players after serving as an assistant to Stielike. He also managed South Korea's under-23 squad at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and the under-20 side at the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup in June.

On his 26-man squad for the two last World Cup qualifiers against Iran and Uzbekistan, Shin included veterans who previously didn't get Stielike's nod to keep discipline of the team. With the arrival of new head coach and addition of forgotten veterans, fans were hoping for better performances. But things didn't changed much.

Shin had an opportunity to clinch a World Cup spot in his senior coaching debut in front of a 63,000 home crowd last Thursday with a win over Iran. Since Uzbekistan lost to China, South Korea, with a victory, would have moved to 16 points and locked down the second seed in Group A with one match to spare.

South Korea were instead held a scoreless draw. And the race to the World Cup got more complicated after Syria beat Qatar 3-2 and moved up to third place in the group ahead of Uzbekistan.

Both Syria and Uzbekistan were tied at 12 points, but the former had a tie-breaking edge with a better goal difference. Heading into the last match, South Korea had to fend off those two nations.

The last qualifying match against Uzbekistan was considered a must-win for the South Koreans, as a victory would assure them a World Cup ticket. Other than a win, their fate was to be determined by the result between Syria and Iran in Tehran.

In the worst case, South Korea could have faced elimination by finishing in fourth place if they lost to Uzbekistan and Syria beat Iran.

As it happened, though South Korea only got a draw against Uzbekistan, Lady Luck smiled on them as Syria got a 2-2 draw versus Iran.

It wasn't pretty, but South Korea did keep their promise of returning home with a World Cup ticket.

At the end, the KFA's decision to change the national team boss paid off and South Korea again learned the hard way that going to the World Cup isn't easy.

kdon@yna.co.kr

(END)

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