They might have ended on a high note four years ago, scoring two late goals to take down defending champions Germany, but that wasn’t enough to go beyond the group stage. In ten previous attempts, South Korea has been able to make the play-offs only twice, in 2002 and 2010.
After a disappointing quarter-final exit in the 2019 Asian Cup, they had little trouble in qualifying for the World Cup, moving through both the second and third round with ease. They’ve beaten Iceland, Chile, Egypt, and Cameroon in friendlies this year, but at the same time taken in heavy defeats from Brazil and Japan.
How do they play?
Under Portuguese head coach Paulo Bento, the Taegeuk Warriors have been defensively sound with just four goals allowed in 17 qualification games. In Asia, their defense starts from attack, with ball possession being key. They pass more and with better accuracy than their counterparts, especially when it comes to through passes.
However, they shoot, cross, dribble, and duel less – with the ball under their control for long periods, it’s all about retention and finding the right moment. It remains to be seen how well will that strategy work against the best of the world, with the 1:5 drubbing by Brazil a particular concern.
Why they can win?
They are organized and have quite a lot of talent playing in Europe. After disappointing performances at several tournaments, some self-belief should do them good. Start off by snatching something from Uruguay, collect three points against a rather mediocre Ghana and it should be enough to make it through to the knock-out stage.
Why they can lose?
Ever-present at World Cups these days, maybe they are rated higher than they should be. When making it to the semi-finals in 2002, they had some very questionable decisions go their way, and that’s about it in terms of success. They are perennial losers, with even Asian championships evading South Korea since 1960.
The leading stars
How many teams in this World Cup can say they have a bona fide superstar in his prime? Last season’s Premier League Golden Boot winner Son Heung-min certainly fits that category. The 30-year-old Tottenham forward is close to unplayable at his best. There were doubts about him making the World Cup after a nasty injury, but he should be healthy by then and will have plenty of rest before.
The fresh faces
If one has followed Napoli’s amazing Champions League campaign, 25-year-old center-back Kim Min-jae should be a familiar figure. Picked up by the Italian club after just one season with Fenerbahce, he has justified every cent spent by replacing Kalidou Koulibaly seamlessly. This will be his first World Cup, and it’s almost certain there will be top teams watching him closely.