South Korea will meet its old football nemesis Iran in the quarterfinals of the ongoing Asian Cup in Doha, Qatar, at 1:25 a.m. Sunday, Korean time, for their fifth straight showdown in the final eight of the regional tournament.
South Korea’s poor history against Iran ― with no victories in their last six meetings ― has been well-documented. The first loss for Cho Kwang-rae, the current South Korean head coach who took the helm after the FIFA World Cup last summer, came against Iran last September in Seoul.
But Cho refused to dwell on the past.
“We’re a completely different team from the one back in Seoul,” Cho said in Doha earlier this week. “Our players feel the same way. As long as we play our game and dominate the ball, we’re confident that we can get good results against any team, be it Iran or others.”
South Korea is trying to win its first Asian Cup since 1960.
While Iranian players will look to extend its unbeaten streak against South Korea, the Iranian man who knows the most about South Korean football will be on the bench.
Korea’s national soccer team players train during a practice session at Al-Wakrah stadium in Doha on Friday. (Yonhap News)
Head coach Afshin Ghotbi coached for seven years in South Korea ― five years as a national team assistant under three head coaches at two World Cups and one Asian Cup, and two years as an assistant for a professional club. Ghotbi said his knowledge of the South Korean side should help his country.
“It’s a difficult match for any team,” he said. “But because of my very deep understanding and knowledge of the Korean way of playing football ― even the psychological side, the way the players think, the way the coaches think ― I think that gives us an edge, and we hope to capitalize on that edge.”
Ghotbi admitted he still has a soft spot in his heart for South Korea and its players but he will focus on the job at hand.
“It’s my job to win with Iran whoever we have to face, and the Korean players know my feelings toward them, the Korean people know how I feel about them,” he said. “But in the end, my job is to win as head coach of Iran and as I said before, I would’ve preferred we met in the final but unfortunately, I have to end their tournament a little bit sooner rather than later.”
Iran was the only team to win all three games in the group stage, scoring six times and giving up one goal. South Korea put up two wins and a draw and had seven goals.
Cho said Iran plays a physical and technical brand of football, which he said “will make for an interesting matchup” in the win-or-go-home contest.
“I stressed to our players that if we’re not good enough to beat Iran, then we can’t win the Asian Cup,” Cho said.
In the past four South Korea-Iran quarterfinals meetings, the winning team never made it to the final, only settling for the third place each time. To go beyond that stage this year, South Korea will continue to look to its young guns.
Four of South Korea’s six goals have come off the foot of Koo Ja-cheol. The 21-year-old is tied with Ismaeel Abdulatif of Bahrain for the Asian Cup lead but Bahrain has been eliminated from the event.
Striker Ji Dong-won, 19, scored twice against India in the group stage. Koo and Ji have combined for just 17 international matches.
Captain Park Ji-sung is still seeking his first-ever Asian Cup goal and this may be the time to end the drought. Against Iran during the Asian qualification for the 2010 World Cup two years ago, Park scored both game-tying goals for South Korea in a pair of 1-1 draws.
“Iran is a team that we were bound to meet eventually if we’re to win this championship,” Park said. “I’ve never been afraid of facing them and my teammates are the same. We’re a different squad from last year’s friendly match. I think we’ve proven that with our play in group stage.”
Ghotbi is also looking forward to the clash. “Without that matchup (between South Korea and Iran), it’s not an Asian Cup,” he said. “I expect a wonderful match.”