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Rise of Korea’s young guns

Prospects to get more playing time in Honduras friendly

The South Korean national team is in action on home soil on Friday evening in Seoul for the first time this year with a friendly against Honduras. Their last appearance at home was a goalless draw against Japan in Seoul in October. More than five months later, head coach Cho Kwang-rae is hoping to show his countrymen some of the players and play that impressed at the Asian Cup in January.

The game with the Central American team was scheduled to be followed by a tie against Montenegro four days later in Suwon. That, however, has been cancelled. The Eastern European squad saw their original match with Japan called off due to the recent earthquake and tsunami and decided to scrap their East Asian mini-tour. The Korean Football Association has come up with a decent solution, however, as the national team will face the Olympic (U23) team in Suwon instead.

None of the games will feature Park Ji-sung or Lee Young-pyo, as both stepped down after the Asian Cup in which Korea finished third. Park wouldn’t have made the trip east anyway, as the former captain has yet to play a competitive match since the semifinal penalty shootout defeat at the hands of Japan. Only now is the 29-year-old close to returning to action for Manchester United, a club that was happier than the vast majority of fans in Korea when Park made his decision to retire from the international game.

With the two veterans not taking part ― Lee now plays his club soccer for Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia ― attention turns to a new generation of Taeguk Warriors. That doesn’t include Koo Ja-cheol for this match. The midfielder, 21, was the top goal-scorer at the 2011 Asian Cup, a fact that helped him move from Jeju United to VfL Wolfsburg in Germany. Cho has left him in the Bundesliga to continue settling in and did the same for 18-year-old Son Heung-min at Hamburg SV. 
Korean national soccer team head coach Cho Kwang-rae looks on during a practice session ahead of the Honduras friendly. (Yonhap News)
Korean national soccer team head coach Cho Kwang-rae looks on during a practice session ahead of the Honduras friendly. (Yonhap News)

There are five new faces on the roster of 27 that is heavy with K-League players. These are goalkeeper Ha Kang-jin and defender Kim Sung-hwan of Seongnam Chunma, FC Seoul midfielder Kim Tae-hwan, Pohang Steelers forward Cho Chan-ho and Gwangju FC striker Park Ki-dong.

Since taking the reins last July, Cho has made a point of giving young players opportunities. Some have seized the chance with both hands. That includes Ji Dong-won, the teenage striker from Chunnam Dragons, who scored twice at the Asian Cup and lead the attack line with a maturity beyond his years. Lee Yong-rae is not quite as young at 24 but the new Suwon Bluewings star made the defensive midfield role his own with a series of commanding performances.

There are some familiar faces, however. Three players make the trip east from Europe. Park Chu-young missed the Asian Cup due to injury but the AS Monaco striker has been in fine form of late in France; better than his team which is fighting to escape demotion. In some ways, Park is now the senior international and it remains to be seen if he thrives on the extra responsibility.

Lee Chung-yong has struggled to recapture his regular starting spot at Bolton Wanderers in the English Premier League since returning to the club from Qatar, though he did score a vital last-minute winning goal the weekend before last.

“It is good to be playing in front of Korean fans once again,” said Lee as he arrived home earlier this week. “The qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup will start later this year, so every game is important it we want to make a perfect team.”

Lee also said it was no problem for him to make another long journey home to play for his country. “As a soccer player, I am always waiting for the day when I can join with the national team. Wherever I am, I will also try to answer the call. It is always an honor and never a burden at all.”

Ki Sung-yueng will join his former FC Seoul colleague back in the Korean capital from Celtic in Scotland.

It is difficult to say what kind of test Honduras will pose. The team qualified for the 2010 World Cup for the first time in 28 years. Their group, with eventual champion Spain as well as Switzerland and Chile, wasn’t easy. The Central Americans managed one point but didn’t manage to score. Teams from that region don’t always travel well for exhibition games, especially those held as far away as East Asia.

The match in Seoul is the first for new coach Luis Fernando Suarez, a Colombian who took Ecuador to the second round of the 2006 World Cup, and he is charged with taking Honduras to Brazil in 2014.

He will be without two of its biggest stars, as Wilson Palacios of Tottenham Hotspur in England and Edgar Alvarez of Bari in Italy are injured. Park Chu-young will be happy to see Monaco teammate Georgie Welcome in Seoul while Hendry Thomas and Maynor Figueroa both play for Wigan Athletic of the English Premier League.

By John Duerden, Contributing writer (