SAO PAULO ― In one painful outing, Korea’s hopes of passing the group stages for the second straight World Cup were all but wiped out.
Korea seemed to have left behind the poor form it showed in the run-up to the World Cup with a solid 1-1 opener against Russia. But the concerns about its crucial defensive weaknesses returned with Sunday’s 4-2 loss. “I don’t think I’ve ever played such a terrible match in my football career,” confessed a disheveled and emotional Han Kook-young the day after Algeria routed Korea’s defense.
Korea heads into its third and toughest group match against Belgium on Thursday (Friday, Korea time) in front of some 61,000 spectators, its biggest audience thus far.
|Korea coach Hong Myung-bo (left) and Belgium coach Marc Wilmots ( Yonhap)|
If the squad suffers another loss in Brazil, it will be the nine-time participant’s worst World Cup performance since 1998, when Korea’s Hong Myung-bo and Belgium’s Marc Wilmots met as defender and midfielder rather than as World Cup coaches in a 1-1 draw.
Hong’s men are determined not to let that happen. “Honestly, our team’s mood is not good, but no one has given up on our dream of making the round of 16,” said Kim Shin-wook, who came on as a late substitute Sunday. “It is true that Belgium is a strong team, but if we display our last fighting spirit, the unexpected is possible.”
The odds are against the Taeguk Warriors: Belgium has sealed its spot at the top of Group H with six points, followed by Algeria in second with three. Korea’s ticket to the next round depends not only on its own success but that of Russia, which plays Algeria on Thursday. Both teams, tied with one point, must win, and Korea must score one more goal than Russia over their respective opponents to stage the upset.
Korea’s only third-match win in the World Cup was 1-0 over Portugal in 2002, when the team, captained by Hong, went on to the semifinals.
A defeat would add to Asia’s dismal World Cup outing, with Australia and Japan already having gone home winless by Tuesday. Iran similarly went into its third game Wednesday on the brink of elimination with a loss and a draw.
Korea must face a clever, energetic opponent ranked No. 11 in the world that has been hailed as the dark horse of this tournament. And Korea has never beaten the European side. Belgium won 2-0 and drew 1-1 at the 1990 and 1998 World Cups, and beat Korea 2-1 in a friendly in 1999. Though Belgium has had its own slow start, it has so far overcome its struggles with sturdy substitutes Marouane Fellaini, Dries Mertens and Divock Origi to pull last-minute wins against Algeria (2-1) and Russia (1-0).
Korea must find a way to shore up its chronically maligned defense while scoring some goals. Park Chu-young leads the team in international goals at 24, having scored six in qualifying matches in 2011 and then in Korea’s only winning World Cup warmup against Greece in March. But he has yet to justify his contentious spot on the roster with a goal. With performances fraught with fumbled passes and fizzled-out attacks, he was subbed out before the hour mark in each of the first two matches, and was brought back behind star midfielder Son Heung-min in the tactical lineup against Algeria.
Korea has conceded five goals in two matches, as many as it did throughout the six games in its 2012 London Olympics campaign, when it earned the bronze medal. That Olympic team, also under Hong, consisted of a dozen of the same players as the Brazil roster.
Though center backs Hong Jeong-ho and Kim Young-gwon have played for Korea together since their U20 days, they have struggled to stay on the same page defensively in Brazil. Particularly against Algeria, they were all too often caught ball-watching or out of position at crucial moments, leaving goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong to fend for himself.
By Elaine Ramirez, Korea Herald correspondent
Grace Cho in Seoul contributed to this article. ―Ed.