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With Olympics looming, nat'l football caretaker coach not interested in double duty

By Yonhap

Published : March 27, 2024 - 19:47

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South Korean players celebrate their 3-0 win over Thailand in the teams' Group C match in the second round of the Asian World Cup qualification tournament at Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok, Tuesday. (Yonhap) South Korean players celebrate their 3-0 win over Thailand in the teams' Group C match in the second round of the Asian World Cup qualification tournament at Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok, Tuesday. (Yonhap)

For South Korea's two World Cup qualifying matches, Hwang Sun-hong was thrust into a difficult situation.

Hwang, head coach of the South Korean under-23 men's team trying to qualify for the Olympics, was named the senior squad's caretaker manager for March. His job was to hold the fort for two matches against Thailand and keep South Korea atop their group in the Asian World Cup qualifying tournament, while the Korea Football Association continued its search for a full-time replacement for erstwhile coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

Hwang did an admirable job given the circumstances, as South Korea defeated Thailand 3-0 Tuesday night in Bangkok following a 1-1 draw against them in Seoul last Thursday.

After returning home Wednesday, Hwang said he is ready to shift his focus back to his day job. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U-23 Championship, which doubles as the Asian qualifying tournament for the Paris Olympics, kicks off April 15 in Qatar.

Hwang insisted he is not interested in pulling double duty as coach for both the U-23 and the senior teams, as some media reports suggested he might.

"I have not thought about taking on both jobs," Hwang told reporters at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul. "The U-23 team is coming back home tomorrow (from a recent tournament in Saudi Arabia). I'll have to sit down with my staff for the next two days to finalize our roster, and time is not on our side. I will have to concentrate on that, and nothing more."

Hwang gave kudos to the players for putting in the effort to come together as a team, even though they only had a few days to train together.

"Once the new coach comes in to take over, I think this team will be even better," Hwang said. "I expect big things out of this group."

Hwang acknowledged that being with the senior team even for a short period of time was a valuable learning experience for him.

"It'd be strange to say I am taking away some nice memories from this, because I still had to prove myself and bring home results," Hwang said. "It was a difficult job but also a rewarding one. Personally, I learned a great deal. This will help me in my coaching career moving forward."

Hwang had just as much to deal with off the pitch as he did on it. Last week's match was played under a cloud of controversy stemming from a series of off-field incidents during the AFC Asian Cup. Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Lee Kang-in, after getting into a scuffle with captain Son Heung-min over a game of table tennis, apologized in front of cameras before the start of his camp. How fans would receive Lee at Seoul World Cup Stadium was a major topic of discussion.

That Lee was even selected in the first place raised a few eyebrows, with critics thinking it was too soon to have Lee and Son on the same team, despite the fact that Lee had flown to London to meet Son and apologize to him in person.

In announcing the roster on March 11, Hwang defended his choice, saying delaying the inevitable -- selecting Lee is never controversial in normal circumstances because of his talent -- wouldn't solve anything and he wanted to give Lee a chance to atone for his mistake on home soil as soon as possible.

Hwang's decision was validated when Lee assisted in Son's goal Tuesday night that gave South Korea a 2-0 lead. Lee jumped into Son's arms to celebrate, and Son later said he was just so happy to have shared that moment with the 23-year-old.

"It was exactly the kind of picture that fans wanted to see and I wanted to see as well," Hwang said. "I was so proud of those guys. I hope they keep creating those moments. It's up to the players themselves and the new head coach to continue to give fans hope."

As for feeling vindicated for choosing Lee, Hwang said, "I don't know about that. I made the decision based on what I was thinking at the time. I just felt Lee had to have his opportunity."

The win on Tuesday was the fourth Group C match for both teams in the second round of the Asian qualification for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. South Korea lead the way with 10 points from three wins and a draw, with two matches remaining -- against Singapore on June 6 and China on June 11. China are in second place with seven points.

The top two teams from each of the nine groups in the second round will advance to the third round.

South Korea have played at every World Cup since 1986 and should move into the next phase this time with little trouble.

Without Hwang in charge, the U-23 team won the West Asian Football Federation U-23 Championship, after being invited by the host country Saudi Arabia. The coach feels the team still has more to give.

"I am not satisfied yet. You can never be perfect in football," Hwang said. "We'll have to work hard. The Olympic qualifying tournament will be a difficult one. We'll have to be prepared for that."

Hwang said he may not have the services of some Europe-based youngsters, including Bae Jun-ho of Stoke City, and said he will have to come up with a Plan B in case of their absences. (Yonhap)