The fact that South Korea has failed to win the Asian Cup since 1960 is a source of puzzlement.
The South Koreans, named the Taeguk Warriors after the emblem of their national flag, have by far the best record at the World Cup of any Asian team and has appeared at eight tournaments. Japan and Saudi Arabia are next with four each. At the competition itself, the team has progressed further than any other when reaching the semifinal in 2002.
At the club level, it is a similar story. K-League teams have lifted the Asian title nine times which again is equal to the combined total of the next best two ― Japan and Saudi Arabia.
Yet when it comes to the Asian Cup, the now 16-team tournament for Asian national teams, South Korea has won the competition twice but those victories came in 1956 and 1960. In the meantime, Israel (before the team left to join the European confederation), Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Iraq have all held the trophy aloft more recently.
The team has come close and finished as runners-up in 1972, 1980 and 1988 but has failed to add to its two titles, leaving it one win behind Iran, Saudi Arabia and Japan.
As South Korea prepares for Group C which also involves Australia, Bahrain and India, all of its competitors are aware that half a century without the trophy is too long. Captain Park Ji-sung was keen to stress just before the 2010 World Cup kicked off, that the Asian Cup was a big deal.
Park Ji-sung arrives at Doha International Airport in Doha, Qatar, Thursday. The AFC Asian Cup soccer tournament kicks off on Friday. (AP-Yonhap News)
“I really want to go to the Asian Cup and help my country win the title for the first time in 50 years,” Park said.
In December, Park’s father told the Korean media that the Manchester United star plans to retire from South Korea’s national team after this year’s Asian Cup scheduled for Jan. 7-29 in Qatar.
South Korea is set to meet Bahrain on Jan. 10, Australia four days later and ends the group against India on Jan. 18.
It remains to be seen if this situation inspires the South Korean team to success. The presence of Park is important. He missed the 2007 tournament when South Korea exited at the semifinal stage.
Park is even more important as star striker Park Chu-young of AS Monaco will miss the tournament through injury. The news is a blow for coach Cho Kwang-rae who took the job in July following the team’s progression to the second round at the 2010 World Cup. (Yonhap News)
It is in attack where the South Korean team is short of experience. Without Park, coach Cho has selected four young strikers who, at the time of selection, had just three international appearances between them.
In the warm-up match against Syria on Dec. 30, both Son Heung-min, who plays for HSV Hamburg of Germany, and Ji Dong-won of Chunnam Dragons made their debuts. Ji scored the only goal of the game to give his team a 1-0 win.
Yoo Byung-soo is the striker most in form but despite scoring 22 goals in the K-league in 2010, five more than the second highest scorer and nine more than the next most prolific South Korean, the Incheon United star has struggled for recognition from Cho.
If the strikers are new, the majority of the other members of the starting eleven are familiar faces. Winger Lee Chung-yong of Bolton Wanderers in England and midfielder Ki Sung-yueng of Scottish giants Celtic have been in excellent form for their clubs and much is expected of the pair.
Bora Milutinovic, the Serbian coach who has a wealth of experience in Asia and has taken five different teams to the World Cup, believes that South Korea will progress.
“Korea are always a good team, although now they have some injured players like Park Chu-young,” Milutinovic said in a posting on the Asian Football Confederation’s Web site. “But the mentality and experience in this side is also good.”
“Bahrain … might do okay but again they changed their coach recently and India will be playing but they’re here without much experience … it’s going to be very difficult for them. So I think Australia and Korea will be the teams to go through from this group,” he said.
South Korea may be familiar with Bahrain in its opening opponent but has little recent contact with either Australia or India.
The last competitive match between Australia and South Korea was way back in 1977 when the Socceroos were part of Oceania’s Confederation. Since the team joined the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 2006, the two teams have met just once, in a friendly game in Seoul in September, 2009.
South Korea triumphed 3-1 but Australia is seen as one of the favorites to win the 16-team tournament. German coach Holger Osieck has selected just four players from domestic A-League in the 23-man roster.
To the rest of the world, the likes of Tim Cahill of English Premier League team Everton and former Liverpool attacker Harry Kewell may be famous players but South Korean fans are familiar with Sasa Ognenovski.
The defender joined K-League club Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma at the beginning of 2009. In his second season in Gyeonggi Province, Ognenovski captained the team to the Asian Champions League title.
After lifting the trophy in Tokyo in November, the former Adelaide United star was named by the AFC as Asia’s Player of the Year.
“It’s a big tournament,” Ognenovski told the Australian media in December. “I know the Koreans are taking it very seriously, and from what I’ve heard the Japanese are too.”
“This year will probably be the most serious (Asian Cup) that has been played yet. I don’t think many of the teams took it too seriously last time around, but I think this time around it’s going to be a bit harder.”
At 26th, Australia is the top-ranked AFC nation in FIFA’s world rankings, 14 places higher than South Korea.
The biggest threat to the two favorites is Bahrain. The tiny West Asian nation, with a population of less than a million, punches above its weight when it comes to soccer.
The team is, according to FIFA, the seventh best in the AFC and has the talent to shock its bigger group rivals. It did just that in the same competition in 2007, coming back from a goal down to defeat Korea 2-1 in Jakarta.
Bahrain also reached the semifinal of the 2004 Asian Cup and narrowly missed out on qualification for both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups.
For Bahrain, preparations have been far from smooth, however.
Austrian Josef Hickersberger shocked the nation by quitting from his position as head coach in October to take the reins of United Arab Emirates club Al Wahda.
Bob Houghton, the experienced English coach of India, spoke highly of South Korean football.
“What Korea has done football-wise is similar to what they have done economically,” Houghton said in September. “Along with Japan, Korea is the yardstick which, in Asia, everybody else is judged by.
They are very good. The K-League is a very good league and the national team’s success has been phenomenal.”