South Korea men's football head coach Shin Tae-yong on Monday justified his selection of a few aging players for upcoming World Cup qualifiers, saying they're not just token veterans getting free rides.
Shin unveiled his 26-man roster for the final two Asian World Cup qualifying matches. South Korea will host Iran on Aug. 31 in Seoul and will face Uzbekistan in Tashkent on Sept. 5.
South Korea's streak of eight consecutive World Cup appearances will be at stake in those two contests, as they are barely holding on to the last automatic berth in Group A of the final Asian qualifying round.
Iran have already clinched a spot in Group A with 20 points. South Korea is in second place with 13 points, only one above Uzbekistan with two games to play.
South Korea men`s football head coach Shin Tae-yong speaks at a press conference announcing the national team roster for the World Cup qualifying matches at the Korea Football Association headquarters in Seoul on Aug. 14, 2017. (Yonhap)
And Shin reached out to two veterans in the K League Classic: the 38-year-old forward Lee Dong-gook from Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and 34-year-old midfielder Yeom Ki-hun from Suwon Samsung Bluewings. Lee hasn't played for South Korea in nearly three years, while Yeom's last international match came in May 2015.
Shin said these two, along with Gangwon FC's 32-year-old midfielder Lee Keun-ho, have earned their national team spots with their play, not simply their age.
"I felt they've been among the best players in the K League Classic, and they can lead by example," Shin said. "They've been playing as hard as anyone in the league. If young guys on the national team see just how much work these older players put in, they'll all follow suit."
Lee is the K League Classic's career scoring leader with 196 goals. He has four in 18 matches this season. Yeom is the all-time assists leader with 95 and has seven assists to rank third this season.
Shin was particularly effusive about Lee, saying the forward wouldn't settle for just being the spiritual leader for the team.
"I know people say he should be the heart and soul of the team because of his age, but Lee has told me he wouldn't want to be on the national team if he's only asked to be that type of leader," Shin said. "He told me he wanted to make contributions on the field as well."
Shin said Lee's style of play fits with the coach's offensive philosophy.
"Even when he doesn't score, Lee moves well away from the ball and can create space for other offensive players," the coach said. "In terms of his shooting and his ability to find open teammates up front, I think he's second to none. Whether as a starter or a substitute, I believe he can be a great help to this team."
Lee said he feels the weight of responsibility as he joins the team at a critical juncture.
"If I have a chance to play, I'll give everything I have for the team and help us qualify for the World Cup," he said.
Shin was so enamored with Lee's play that he left off Pohang Steelers' forward Yang Dong-hyeon, who leads all South Korean players in the K League Classic this season with 15 goals, and is tied for third overall.
Shin said Yang's game may be suited for Pohang, but he doesn't move well enough without the ball to warrant a national team spot.
Another potentially controversial choice was Ki Sung-yueng, longtime captain under the previous head coach Uli Stielike. The Swansea City midfielder is still recovering from an offseason knee surgery, and Shin said his rehab has gone so well he may be available for one of the two qualifiers.
Last week, Shin said he'd select Ki regardless of his health because of what he can bring to the team away from the field.
"I think he's been a great leader, and he's someone who can be the glue for the team as we have a lot of turnovers from the last edition," Shin said. "And he has recovered enough that he can actually work out with the rest of the team and play. He won't just be a spiritual leader here." (Yonhap)