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Nat'l football team lands in Greece as players brace for competition

Members of the South Korean men's national football team arrived Sunday in Athens, the site of their upcoming friendly match against Greece, as players braced themselves for competition within the squad.

South Korea is scheduled to take on Greece at 7 p.m. on Wednesday in the Greek capital, or 2 a.m. on Thursday in South Korea.

Head coach Hong Myung-bo arrived from South Korea with eight players from the domestic and Asian leagues, while several others playing in Europe and Middle East traveled separately from their respective bases.

The upcoming match will be South Korea's fourth international friendly of 2014, as the country gets ready for the FIFA World Cup in Brazil starting in June.

In three previous matches held in the United States in late January and early February, Hong didn't have the services of his Europe-based stars, with clubs there under no obligation to release their internationals. South Korea beat Costa Rica 1-0 but lost to Mexico and the U.S. by a combined 6-0.

This time, Hong called up players from European leagues, as March 5 is an official FIFA international match day. The 22-man roster features nine players from Europe.

Though South Korea will host Tunisia in May in another friendly before the big tournament, Hong has declared that the Greece match will be the final test for players on the bubble for the World Cup roster.

"I will focus on trying to figure out which players are in best form for the World Cup," Hong told reporters upon arriving in Athens. "I also expect our team to put up a good fight against Greece."

South Korea leads in all-time meetings against Greece with two wins and a draw, but Greece is ranked 12th in the world, 49 spots above South Korea in the current FIFA rankings.

Both countries have qualified for the World Cup. Greece has drawn Colombia, Cote d'Ivoire and Japan in Group C. South Korea will face Algeria, Belgium and Russia in Group H.

Hong has said multiple positions are still open for competition among more established veterans and up-and-comers.

Midfielder Lee Chung-yong of Bolton Wanderers, a veteran of the 2010 World Cup, will have to fend off an unlikely challenger in the form of Nam Tae-hee, a rising star for Lehkwiya in Qatar.

Lee has been virtually a lock on the right wing position on the national team for years, his creativity and uncanny vision consistently providing spark on offense. At 25, Lee has already played in 52 international matches, and the total could easily have been higher if not for a devastating leg injury he suffered in England in 2011.

Nam, a less-heralded 22-year-old who once toiled in the top French league, has blossomed in Qatar this year. He has scored in six straight games in a recent stretch to put himself in the conversation for the World Cup team.

To encourage friendly competition within the team, coach Hong has repeatedly said no one player is guaranteed a spot on the World Cup roster. After landing in Athens, Lee told reporters on Sunday he knows he will have to earn his right to play in Brazil.

"I've been competing for playing time for as long as I've been on the national team," Lee said. "I am really motivated by excellent performances by younger players." 

Nam, meanwhile, said he still has a long way to go.

"I don't think I am good enough to even be compared with Lee Chung-yong," he said. "But I've been in good form of late and know that I have a great opportunity with the World Cup around the corner. It's been my dream to play in the World Cup."  (Yonhap)