The 55th-ranked Taeguk Warriors did not get a victorious send-off at Seoul World Cup Stadium, instead falling to Tunisia 1-0 in their last friendly on home soil before the World Cup.
Making matters worse for the team, defender Hong Jeong-ho was carried off on a stretcher in the second half with an ankle injury.
Exhibiting better footwork, better passing and better defense, the visitors scored the lone goal late in the first half to give their new coach Georges Leekens a victorious debut. Tunisia, ranked 49th, did not earn a ticket to Brazil and was using this opportunity to prep for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations.
Hong apologized for the team’s loss to the 57,000 spectators, who included former national team coach Huh Jung-moo, Sports Minister Yoo Jin-ryong, and 2010 World Cup captain and recently retired star midfielder Park Ji-sung.
|Korea head coach Hong Myung-bo and captain Koo Ja-cheol take part in the send-off ceremony on Wednesday night. (Yonhap)|
“I think this match will teach us a big lesson. We gave away too much space in the middle and at the back, and that allowed the Tunisian forwards to play freely,” Hong said at a press conference after the match. “Unless we can fix that, we will continue to have a difficult time.”
It was the first match that Hong’s team has played since he announced the 23-man World Cup roster on May 8, and the seventh loss in the 15 matches since he took over last July.
Korea held possession for much of the first half, with captain Koo Ja-cheol of FSV Mainz 05 taking a chance from the left in the 14th minute but shooting wide to the right. Defender Yun Suk-young ― who joined the team just this week from Queens Park Rangers after his team won the English Championship playoff final on Saturday ― was aggressive on the left and drove forward several early attempts, but the Korean side couldn’t surmount Tunisia’s heavy five-man defensive wall.
Yun and midfielder Son Heung-min of Bayer 04 Leverkusen tried for a chance in the 39th minute but could not get into position quickly enough, allowing the visitors to take possession. Although both teams had started timidly, Tunisia broke through Korea’s brittle defense and midfielder Wissem Yahya attempted a shot on goal in the 42nd, which was swatted away by goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong. But the offense kept up its momentum as midfielder Zouhaier Dhaouadi coasted past the Koreans two minutes later and slotted the ball behind Jung in the bottom right corner for the game’s only goal.
|Korea’s Son Heung-min attempts a shot on goal against Tunisia on Wednesday night. (Yonhap)|
Tunisia put up more of a fight in the second half while maintaining its defensive barrier to protect its slim lead. Korean forward Park Chu-young of Arsenal grounded a shot early on that was caught by goalie Ben Mustapha Farouk.
Time and time again, Korea took control but was too slow to convert possession into goal-scoring opportunities.
In a clumsy change of possession in the 58th minute, defender Hong injured his left ankle, went off on a stretcher and was substituted by Kwak Tae-hwi.
Officials on Thursday said Hong would be OK to play again in a week.
As he’d intended, coach Hong aired out the roster and made the maximum six substitutions to give forwards Lee Keun-ho and Kim Shin-wook, midfielders Kim Bo-kyung, Ha Dae-sung and Ji Dong-won and defender Kwak some playing time. That hardly affected the end result, though.
Last-ditch efforts in the 88th minute gave midfielder Ha a chance to level the score, but his shot flew wide of the left post.
The Korean side’s performance was more reminiscent of Korea’s sloppy one-win, two-loss U.S. tour in January and February than its 2-0 victory over Greece in March, despite having its European-based outfielders filling most of the starting lineup here. It was no less disconcerting given that its Group H rivals Russia and Belgium enjoyed victories over Slovakia (1-0) and Luxembourg (5-1), respectively, earlier this week. Belgium is also to warm up against Tunisia in Brussels on June 7.
But Tunisia’s coach Leekens, who led Belgium to the 1998 World Cup and managed the group again from 2010-2012, gave some encouraging words, saying the defeat could be the jolt that South Korea needed ahead of their World Cup campaign.
“We were a good-spirited team and we forced you to commit mistakes,” he said. “One defeat in preparation is sometimes good. I wish you can go to the second round (in Brazil).”
Meanwhile, the Korean FA announced Thursday that injured defender Kim Jin-su had been bumped from the roster, as a ligament in his right ankle had not healed as quickly as hoped. He has been replaced by 1. FSV Mainz 05 left back Park Joo-ho, who captained the national team in the 2007 FIFA U20 World Cup.
With just 2 1/2 weeks left to shape up before Brazil, the defeated South Korean squad regrouped behind closed doors Thursday at the Paju National Football Center in Gyeonggi Province to prepare for training camp in the U.S. It leaves on Friday for Miami, where it will face World Cup contenders Ghana of Group G on June 9 in its final friendly.
The Koreans are due to arrive at their Brazilian base camp in Foz do Iguacu on June 11 before facing Russia on June 17 in Cuiaba, Algeria on June 22 in Porto Alegre and Belgium on June 26 in Sao Paulo.
By Elaine Ramirez (firstname.lastname@example.org)