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S. Korea in for tough battle to reach knockouts as countdown to World Cup nears 100 days

This file image provided by the organizers of the 2022 FIFA World Cup on Sept. 3, 2019, shows the tournament's official emblem. (2022 FIFA World Cup Organizers)
This file image provided by the organizers of the 2022 FIFA World Cup on Sept. 3, 2019, shows the tournament's official emblem. (2022 FIFA World Cup Organizers)

With the countdown to the FIFA World Cup nearing 100 days, South Korea will be bracing themselves for a challenging battle for the knockout phase at football's grandest showcase for the first time in 12 years.

The 22nd edition of the World Cup will kick off in Qatar on Nov. 12, and the countdown clock will hit 100 days Saturday.

This is the first World Cup to take place in the Arab world and the second to be held in Asia, following the 2002 event co-hosted by South Korea and Japan.

Qatar is the smallest nation to stage a World Cup. Eight stadiums in five cities will host 64 matches. All of the venues are located within a 50-kilometer radius of Doha, and 24 out of 32 nations will set up their base camps within a 10-km radius in and around the Qatari capital.

South Korea, making their 10th consecutive World Cup appearance and 11th overall, will face Portugal, Uruguay and Ghana in Group H.

The top two nations from each of the eight groups will advance to the knockout stage. South Korea made it out of the group stage for the first time in 2002, marching into the semifinals in one of the most improbable runs in World Cup history. South Korea returned to the knockouts in 2010 in South Africa.

In 2014 in Brazil, South Korea had one draw and two losses to take an early exit. Four years later in Russia, South Korea had one win and two losses for another quick elimination. That lone victory came against the defending champions Germany, a 2-0 stunner that still wasn't enough to push the Taeguk Warriors into the last 16.

In Qatar, South Korea, No. 28 in current FIFA rankings, will open the proceedings against No. 13 Uruguay on Nov. 24, a 4 p.m. kickoff local time or 10 p.m. the same day in South Korea.

Next up will be No. 60 Ghana on Nov. 28, with the same kickoff time as the first match.

The final group match will be against the group favorites, ninth-ranked Portugal. It will start at 6 p.m. on Dec. 2 in Qatar, or midnight Dec. 3 in South Korea.

All three South Korean matches will be played at Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, just west of Doha.

South Korea, coached by Paulo Bento, have had a mixed bag of performances so far this year.

In January, South Korea beat up Iceland and Moldova by a combined 9-1 in friendly matches. Then in last stages of the final World Cup qualifying round, South Korea brushed aside Lebanon, Syria and Iran in succession, before losing to the United Arab Emirates in the final game with the World Cup ticket already secured.

South Korea then hosted four friendly matches in a 13-day span in June, giving themselves their first serious tests in more than a year.

South Korea fell to Brazil 5-1, lacking defensive organization or offensive oomph against the world's top-ranked team. South Korea then blanked an undermanned Chile 2-0 in a much better effort but were held to a 2-2 draw by a feisty Paraguay side. South Korea finished things off with a 4-1 victory against an Egypt team sans captain Mohamed Salah.

A more concerning development emerged last month at the East Asian Football Federation (EAFF) E-1 Football Championship in Japan.

Because the EAFF tournament wasn't part of the official FIFA international calendar, foreign clubs were under no obligation to release their South Korean players. Without longtime stalwarts, such as Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur and Kim Min-jae of Napoli, Bento took a squad almost entirely made up of K League players. The tournament was to be an audition for those domestic league players to stake their claim for a spot on the final World Cup roster, which will be mostly filled with overseas-based stars.

South Korea predictably breezed through matches against China and Hong Kong with consecutive 3-0 victories. Then against Japan, South Korea submitted an utterly uninspiring effort, falling 3-0 while recording just one shot on target.

The loss exposed South Korea's worrisome lack of depth behind their Europe-based mainstays. And with three high-stakes matches in nine days in Qatar, South Korea, as is the case with all the other participants, can never have enough "plug-and-play" type players who can step in and contribute at a moment's notice.

Unless the roster situation drastically improves over the next three months, South Korea are potentially a Son Heung-min injury away from another early exit.

This will be the last edition to feature 32 teams, as the 2026 tournament, to be co-hosted by Canada, Mexico and the United States, will have 48 teams in action. (Yonhap)

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