Yet in a candid session with South Korean journalists Wednesday here, Hong laid out a clear objective for his 23-man squad at the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
“I know I’ve never talked about our goal, and to be honest, it is to make it out of the group stage,” Hong said with a smile.
“Once past that stage, no one can predict what can transpire. First and foremost, our objective is to advance past the group phase.”
|South Korean football head coach Hong Myung-bo speaks to the press in Miami on Wednesday. (Yonhap)|
Hong’s team has been training here in Miami since last weekend, and the coach gave his charge a day off on Wednesday, hoping the players can recover from effects of grueling training in humid conditions of Florida.
South Korea has advanced to the knockout stage twice, reaching the semifinals in 2002 when it cohosted the tournament with Japan and getting to the round of 16 in 2010 in South Africa.
Hong has played in four consecutive World Cups as a defensive back starting in 1990 and was the team captain in 2002. The coach said it was his “personal goal” to get past the group stage.
“I don’t know what our players are trying to accomplish,” Hong said. “I think there will come a time in the coming days when I get to find out.”
South Korea is paired with Russia, Algeria and Belgium in Group H. At No. 55, South Korea is the lowest-ranked nation of the four.
Hong’s team suffered a 1-0 loss to Tunisia last week in Seoul, its final pre-World Cup match at home. Belgium, Russia and Algeria have collectively gone undefeated in their tune-up matches.
When told that the opponents don’t seem to be keeping close tabs on South Korea, Hong said he didn’t actually mind the situation because it may further motivate his players and South Korea could sneak up on those teams.
“I actually like it that the other teams aren’t paying attention to us,” he said. “But when we trained in the United States in January, they sent some advance scouts to watch us. So I don’t think they will just sit idly by.”
South Korea will face Ghana, also a World Cup participant, in its final tune-up match next Monday in Miami, and will arrive at its Brazilian base camp in Foz do Iguacu two days later.
Looking back on the team’s Miami camp so far, Hong expressed his overall satisfaction.
“Our goal in Miami was to try to improve agility and power necessary to compete at a high level,” Hong said. “So far, things have gone well.”
Earlier this week, a handful of players came down with mild cold symptoms but the coach said they have all fully recovered.
The coach also said he has kept mum on the potential starting members in Brazil because he didn’t want to publicly discuss players’ battles for minutes.
“We’re still in the process of building a team, and I don’t want to emphasize competition within the squad,” Hong said. “I will have to consider players’ form and experience to determine my starting 11, but every single member of this team is precious to me.”
Hong said players relegated to the bench will be perhaps more important to him than the ones on the field, because no team would be complete without the sacrifices of the reserves.
Hong also reiterated that his team is building up for the opening match against Russia on June 17.
“A team must be at absolute 100 percent before its first match at a World Cup,” the coach insisted. “It’s difficult to be perfectly prepared in every facet. But our players clearly understand what they’re supposed to do, and it’s important for them to play to their full capabilities.”
Hong also said one of his key players is in excellent form heading into Brazil.
Hong made a controversial roster pick when he named forward Park Chu-young to his 23-man squad last month. Park, under contract with Arsenal, has barely played for the Premier League side, and also saw little action when he was loaned to a second-division English club Watford in the latter part of this past season.
Hong had previously stressed he would only call up players getting regular action on their respective clubs. The coach later defended his selection by saying he couldn’t find a better suited player for the striker position.
Park does lead the team with 24 goals in 63 international matches.
The 28-year-old helped South Korea win bronze medal at the London Olympics two years ago, with Hong serving as the head coach.
Hong said Wednesday Park is in better form than he had been in London.
“Before the Olympics, Park had spent a lot of time on the bench (at Arsenal),” Hong said. “He had trouble working himself back into shape. But this time, he’s spent less time on the bench and has been training regularly.”
Park played for South Korea in a friendly against Greece and scored the opening goal in the 2-0 win in March. It was his first international match in more than a year.
Park dealt with inflammation to his right foot earlier this year but has fully recovered. Hong noted the player has had “enough time” to build up for the World Cup.