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First step toward glory

National team opens Asian Cup campaign against Bahrain

South Korea kicks off its Asian Cup campaign against Bahrain in the early hours of Tuesday morning (1:15 KST) local time.

It will be a long night for fans in Seoul and elsewhere who stay up to watch the Group C match beamed from the Qatari capital of Doha but that is nothing to the 51 years that have passed since the nation was last crowned continental champion.

It is easy to get the impression that the quadrennial competition, which kicked off last Friday evening as host Qatar lost to Uzbekistan, comes as a distant second to the World Cup when we talk about Korean priorities.

It is true that the global stage is what really excites fans in the Land of the Morning Calm.

That may have played some part in the drought since 1960. Korea may have the best record of any Asian team at the World Cup, but it has not always given the contest’s regional cousin the attention it has deserved.

There are signs that this has changed. The team and coach have been making the right noises and none more so than Park Ji-sung. The captain was busy in 2010 in challenging for the English Premier League title, the UEFA Champions League and the World Cup but his attentions now are firmly fixed on Asia.
Korea’s Park Ji-sung (center) takes part in a training session ahead of the Asian Cup. (Yonhap News)
Korea’s Park Ji-sung (center) takes part in a training session ahead of the Asian Cup. (Yonhap News)

“Our target is to become a champion. It is the time to us to get it,” said Park.

“Moreover, we have well prepared ourselves for the Asian Cup because we haven’t won it for 50 years. I do not have much time left in the international game. This makes me want to win the Asian Cup more than ever before.”

The Manchester United star missed the 2007 contest through injury and in his absence, Korea finished third, good enough to be awarded an automatic place at the 2011 event without bothering with qualification.

With a fit and committed Park, Korea has a chance. First though, Group C needs to be negotiated. Four days after Bahrain comes the eagerly-awaited clash with Australia before the group stage ends against India.

“We have to get through the group stage (against) Bahrain, Australia and India,” Park said.

“It’s not an easy group. Our goal is win this title but first we have to focus on those three games.”

The middle match with Australia is the big one and will attract viewers’ interest around the world, but the Bahrain game is the key clash for Korea. Given that the final match of the group comes against a weak Indian team, a win against Bahrain should give Korea access to the knockout stage, almost irrespective of what happens against the Socceroos.

Bahrain is a useful team and the survivors of the 2007 Asian Cup squad will remember the 2-1 defeat suffered in Jakarta at the hands of the tiny West-Asian nation. That was an unusual tournament for the Taeguk Warriors who came within a penalty shootout of reaching the final but only scored three goals in six games (three of which included extra times of 30 minutes each). The opponents reached the 2004 semifinal and came very close to qualification for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups. Ranked by FIFA as the seventh-best team in Asia, the Reds will be without veteran midfielder Mohammed Salmeen due to a broken leg.

The captain’s armband was handed to Salman Isa, who is now also doubtful for the match due to injury. Korea will need to watch Nigerian-born striker Jaycee John, who plays his club soccer in Turkey, and talented midfielder Mahmood Abdulrahman, known as “Ringo” due to his distinctive nose.

Korea’s main absence is that of star striker Park Chu-young who injured his knee in action for French club AS Monaco last month. Coach Cho has a big decision as to who will replace the 25-year-old. In the build-up period, teenage striker Ji Dong-won scored a fine goal that may have earned him a starting place.
Korea manager Cho Kwang-rae (Yonhap News)
Korea manager Cho Kwang-rae (Yonhap News)

“We haven’t won the competition for 50 years,” said coach Cho last week. “Now we will do everything we can to end the drought.”

By John Duerden (johnduerden@hotmail.com)

(Contributing writer)
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