SAO PAULO, Brazil ― South Korean football coach Hong Myung-bo does not have a religion. If his squad won the unlikely victory against the widely favored Belgium on Thursday in their final Brazil World Cup group match, he would not call it a miracle, he said at a press conference in Sao Paulo on the eve of the big game.
Instead, he said he simply wanted his players to do their best and to play for the Korean people.
“Right now, for us to go to the round of 16, of course the conditions are not favorable,” he said shortly after the team wrapped up its final practice ahead of Thursday’s match. “But what I am telling my players is that regardless of whether we move on to the next phase, I want us to give the Korean people hope.
“We know that the Korean people want this, desire this,” he added. “It is up to the players to go out on the pitch to do their utmost. If they do so, then I will be satisfied and happy.”
Korean coach Hong Myung-bo (left) and Belgium coach Marc Wilmots (Yonhap)
Korea’s World Cup campaign started with a promising 1-1 draw against Russia, but players admitted their spirits were crushed after a 4-2 defeat by Algeria that laid bare their defensive and offensive weaknesses. At the bottom of the group, Korea has all but been eliminated. Its only chance of surviving to the next round is if Korea beats Belgium, Russia beats Algeria, and Korea scores at least one more goal than Russia over their respective opponents to win by goal difference.
The members of Group H play the Brazil World Cup’s final set of group matches on Thursday at 5 p.m. (Friday 5 a.m., Korea time). Korea, with one point, plays Belgium, leading with six, while Russia faces off against Algeria, with one and three points, respectively.
Hong said that all of his players had been doing their best throughout the World Cup despite still going winless, and that they would continue to do so. He also praised striker Park Chu-young, a contentious inclusion on the World Cup squad who has yet to score a goal in Brazil, for creating “balance” on the team.
Korea and Belgium last met in 1999, when Belgium won 2-0 in a friendly. The year before that, they drew 1-1 at the France World Cup when current Belgian coach Marc Wilmots was a midfielder and Hong was a defender.
Hong acknowledged that as the Taeguk Warriors’ opponents have already secured their top spot in Group H and ticket to next round, they may be more at ease and feel less tension, but that it didn’t mean they would be less skillful. He praised Wilmots for leading his team “admirably,” while adding that anything could happen.
“In … football, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the strongest team will al-ways win. That’s what we’re preparing for. Even though it is our last game, we can hope, and I don’t think anyone can predict what will happen in the match.”
If Korea beats Belgium, it will be the only Asian Football Confederation team to log a victory in this World Cup. Japan, Australia and Iran had already gone home winless by Wednesday.
Captain Koo Ja-cheol, by Hong’s side, said the whole team was aware that their fans on the other side of the world were still hoping for Korea’s best on Thursday.
“All of the players know that the Korean people want us to play a great match tomorrow, and I know that they’re waking up very early in the morning to support us, to cheer us on,” said Koo, who softened the blow of Korea’s defeat by Algeria with the second goal. “That is why each and every one of us … are sacrificing ourselves for the team.
“Following the match with Algeria we were all very disappointed, needless to say,” he added. “But we have picked up ourselves from that match, and we are going to fight for tomorrow’s match because we know that the Korean people are behind us.”
Whatever happens Thursday, Hong said, it is not the end for his young players, as the future of Korean football depends on them. Though just a handful went to the World Cup in South Africa, a dozen were on the bronze medal-winning London Olympic squad and many, including Koo, have been playing under Hong since their U20 or U23 days.
“I don’t think this match with Belgium will be the last,” said Hong. “Our players will not stop here. They will continue to play for Korean football. They must. They are our future.”
Following Thursday’s matches, Belgium heads to Salvador on July 1 to take on the No. 2 of Group G, consisting of Germany, the U.S., Ghana and Portugal. The runner-up of Group H, between Russia, Algeria and South Korea, will play Group G’s top seed in Porto Alegre on June 30.
By Elaine Ramirez, Korea Herald correspondent