South Korean head coach Hong Myung-bo on Monday hinted at a conservative approach against Russia in the upcoming World Cup showdown, saying his team should "play not to lose."
The Group H kickoff between the 57th-ranked South Korea and the 19th-ranked Russia will be at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba, in the central-west region of the host Brazil. At a pre-match press conference held at the stadium, Hong said it was as important to avoid a loss as it is to try to win the opener.
"Obviously, the first match will have a huge impact on our team the rest of the group stage," Hong said. "It'd be nice if we can win the first match, but it's also important to play not to lose.
After Russia, we will still have two more matches left. We're going to have to keep the big picture in mind as we prepare for the tournament."
Hong's remarks represent a slight step back from a confident posture he had assumed earlier. The coach had repeatedly said the objective was to win the opening group match and build on that momentum the rest of the way.
The coach had put on a brave face even as his team scuffled, losing to Tunisia, 1-0, at home on May 28 and then to Ghana, 4-0, in Miami on June 9. Hong said his confidence in his team has never wavered.
"We have a young team with plenty of energy," Hong said of the squad whose average age is just 26.1 years old, the youngest South Korean World Cup squad ever. "They may be young but they don't make immature decisions on the field. I trust that they will make great decisions."
Hong also said he felt both teams would have their share of chances, and the match will come down to who can make the most of those opportunities.
"Our finishing touch around the goal will determine the winner," the coach said. "I expect our offensive players to score in this World Cup. They have other responsibilities, too, and I hope they can fulfill their roles accordingly."
Hong's connection with Guus Hiddink, former head coach of both South Korea and Russia, was also a point of interest at the press conference. Hong served as South Korea's captain when Hiddink coached South Korea to the semifinals at the 2002 World Cup. Before Hong became South Korea's head coach last summer, he received some coaching training under Hiddink on the Dutchman's Russian pro club, FC Anzhi Makhachkala.
Asked if he'd received any advice from Hiddink, Hong said, "We didn't really talk about the Russian national team while I was with Anzhi."
Earlier on Monday, Fabio Capello, head coach for Russia, said his players may not be informed of their South Korean opponents, but it wasn't important to know the players' names, as long as his players knew their opponents' characteristics.
Hong said he "admired" Capello, who has won multiple club titles in Europe, but the presence of the renowned coach on the opposing bench will have little impact on his team's performance.
In response to a perceived slight, Hong flashed a rare smile and quipped, "It's difficult for foreigners to remember Korean names. We have to keep that in mind."
"I don't think we're being ignored or overlooked by others,"
Hong continued. "Whatever the situation, we'll give our best on the field. I am sure our players will play hard and make sure they won't have any regrets."
Koo Ja-cheol, the South Korean captain accompanying Hong to the presser, said losing the past two tune-up matches has been a good learning experience and has brought the team closer off the field.
"After losing to Ghana, we were really down on ourselves, but we've had plenty of chances to talk amongst ourselves," Koo said.
"We started to share our thoughts on how to play in the World Cup.
We're 100 percent confident against Russia and we have to maintain our concentration throughout the game." (Yonhap)