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Korea shows promise ahead of World Cup

Korea’s Son Heung-min heads upfield against Russia. (Yonhap News)
Korea’s Son Heung-min heads upfield against Russia. (Yonhap News)
Despite suffering a loss in its final game of 2013 this week, the South Korean men’s national soccer team still showed hope for next year’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

South Korea blew an early lead and lost 2-1 to Russia in Dubai on Tuesday.

It foiled South Korea’s bid to close out the year on a three-game winning streak, after the country’s wins over Mali last month and Switzerland last week.

Under head coach Hong Myung-bo, who was appointed in June, South Korea won three games, lost four and drew three others, with 12 goals scored and 11 allowed.

Not all was lost for the national team as it heads into 2014, especially considering the disastrous start to Hong’s tenure in the summer. As time wore on, players gradually developed a familiarity with Hong’s system and with each other at both ends of the pitch.

Hong began his senior national team coaching career at the East Asian Cup, which South Korea hosted in July, and South Korea managed two draws and a loss. Its August friendly against Peru also ended in a draw, giving Hong the dubious distinction of becoming the first South Korean head coach to begin his term with a four-game winless streak.

In those four games, South Korea managed just one goal, as three of the matches ended in scoreless draws.

A 4-1 win over an overmatched Haiti in the fifth game was followed by losses to a pair of top-10 countries on the FIFA rankings, first to Croatia and then to Brazil.

And yet it was in the 2-0 loss on Oct. 12 to Brazil, the five-time World Cup champion, that South Korea finally began to show some grit.

South Korea made life miserable for Brazil, as its midfielders and defensive backs willingly threw their bodies at skilled South Americans and frustrated highly regarded stars such as Neymar and Oscar.

Buoyed after the hard-fought match, South Korea handily defeated Mali 3-1 three days after the Brazil game.

Bayer Leverkusen star Son Heung-min and Cardiff City midfielder Kim Bo-kyung each netted highlight-reel goals in the second half, and in plays leading up to these goals, their teammates also demonstrated some creativity and deft footwork hardly seen in earlier matches.

The 2-1 win over the world No. 7 Switzerland last Friday in Seoul may have been the best game South Korea has played under Hong. The host country erased a 1-0 deficit with a pair of headers.

In addition, Kim Shin-wook, a lanky striker once maligned for his lack of versatility, delivered his finest international performance to date, creating space for fellow attackers to roam free and setting up a series of scoring opportunities.

Kim then scored the opening goal against Russia, becoming the first front-line striker to score a goal for Hong.

Kim’s emergence as the go-to-guy in the striker position appears to be the biggest gain for Hong as he readies to open his first training camp of next year in January in Brazil and play three friendly matches in the United States later in the same month. (Yonhap News)