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Jun 2, 2014

32 Teams in 32 Days: South Korea

South Korea will be making their ninth straight appearance at the World Cup with the highlight being 2002 when they reached the semi-finals.

Group H | Belgium | Algeria | Russia


Team DNA



When manager Hong Myung-bo took over last July, he talked of returning to traditional Korean football values, the DNA that has led the Taeguk Warriors to be Asia's most successful World Cup team. This is a young, yet not completely inexperienced squad that works hard for each other, on and off the ball, and breaks at a high pace.

- 32 Teams in 32 Days: Country-by-country previews

South Korea will be one of the youngest teams in Brazil, and one of the fastest. The wingers drift inside and out, while fullbacks overlap and get behind opposition defenders to find teammates streaming into the area.

When it works, as it did against Switzerland in November, it can be exhilarating. It certainly takes the mind off a defence that has not filled anyone with confidence since Hong, the 2002 captain, hung up his boots in 2005.

Starting scenario

History

South Korea are set to play in their eighth World Cup and ninth overall. Their best finish came in 2002, when they hosted the event (along with Japan) and finished fourth overall. Germany ousted South Korea 2-1 in those semifinals.

How they reached Brazil

The earlier stages of qualification were defined by a loss in Lebanon that cost then-manager Cho Kwang-rae his job. Choi Kang-hee was drafted in next, but never looked comfortable. South Korea started the final round well with wins in Qatar and at home against Lebanon, but an inability to defend set pieces led to a subsequent draw in Uzbekistan and defeat in Iran.

A last-minute winner at home against Qatar and a late equaliser in Beirut kept the team on track, but the football was direct, plodding and predictable. South Korea used an amazing total of 45 players in qualification, more than any fellow qualifier except Argentina.

An own goal gave them victory in the penultimate game against Uzbekistan, and despite defeat at home against Iran, Korea stumbled over the line thanks to the narrowest of goal-differential margins. Choi quickly stepped down, as he said he would, and the accusations over splits in the camp began to surface. Not pretty, on or off the pitch.

The numbers never lie

Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:

Key battles

Taking three points off of Belgium would be healthy for a nation that sometimes gives the European game and their stars too much respect. Defeating Russia and their manager, Fabio Capello, would be a feather in the cap for the still-inexperienced Hong.

Beating one of the big countries in the round of 16 would be huge for the game in South Korea. They defeated Germany 3-1 in a 2004 friendly, but lost to them in the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup. South Korea were able to send off a few football powerhouses on home soil that year, and a repeat in South America would be progress.

Most important player

It has to be Park Chu-young. There has been a good deal of controversy over the selection of the Arsenal striker, who, well, never plays for Arsenal apart from seven league minutes since August 2011.

Hong has been criticised for showing favouritism to the 28-year-old, but has replied by saying there just isn't anyone else as good. If Park can show the form that made him arguably Asia's best striker before the last World Cup, South Korea have an excellent chance of success and the controversy will disappear.

Goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong has a big part to play, and not all are convinced he can do it; meanwhile, Ki Sung-yueng sets the tempo from midfield.

Definition of success

A reasonably good draw has led to higher expectations, but if South Korea booked a spot in the round of 16, Hong's work would be done, everyone would breathe a sigh of relief and anything else would be a huge bonus.

- Video: South Korea odds in World Cup (Australia only)

They have made the knockout stage in two of the past three World Cups (and came very close in 2006), and a third appearance would confirm the nation's standing as a genuine World Cup power.

How far will South Korea go?

They'll reach the round of 16.

ESPN FC analysts' take: Shaka Hislop

You look at South Korea's lineup and seemingly everyone has the ability to change a game. They outscored their opponents 27-11 in their two rounds of qualifying, and they have a glut of world-class players.

The same variety that makes South Korea a threat on offence could also contribute to a lack of cohesiveness in the latter stages of the tournament. After using 45 different players in their qualifying campaign, it seemed the old management didn't know what they were doing with these players.

As a result, South Korea have yet to find the right formation, so Hong has a lot of work in front of him. I'm not sure they can fix all of the problems before Brazil.

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