Son and Co. aiming to enhance South Korea's status
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) Son Heung-min is part of a new wave of players aiming to enhance South Korea's status at the World Cup, no longer content with merely being Asia's most successful performer on football's biggest stage.
The South Koreans have progressed past the group stage in two of the last three World Cups, reaching the semifinals as co-host in 2002 and the last 16 in 2010.
Approaching its eighth consecutive appearance at the World Cup, South Korea boasts a young team full of players with European experience and led by a young and popular coach in Hong Myung-bo.
Hong has good credentials. He was captain of the 2002 team that reached the semifinals, prompting millions of chanting fans to flood into downtown streets to watch the team's progress on giant screens. As a coach, Hong took his country to the quarterfinals of the Under-20 World Cup in 2009 and to a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics.
The World Cup presents the biggest test yet for 45-year-old former defender. In Group H, South Korea will face Russia, Algeria and Belgium.
''Every game at the World Cup is difficult, every team is a strong team, but we believe in ourselves and our ability,'' Hong said. ''This is a young team but we also have lots of experience in competitions around the world and who play in the best leagues of Europe and Asia. We believe in ourselves and each other.''
Hong took over as head coach last July after South Korea struggled through qualification under Choi Kang-hee. Criticized for unimaginative and predictable football, the team qualified for Brazil by the narrowest of margins amid claims of disunity among the players.
Choi had always planned to step down after qualification and, as expected, Hong was appointed on a two-year contract. While Choi seemed to struggle to deal with the team's Europe-based stars and preferred K-League players, Hong's squad in a friendly against Greece in March was stacked with foreign-based players.
The result was an impressive 2-0 win over the Greeks in Athens, with Son Heung-min and Park Chu-young scoring spectacular goals.
Much depends on such stars. Son is one of the brightest young talents in Germany and moved to Bayer Leverkusen in the offseason after three promising seasons with Hamburg. Koo Ja-cheol, Hong Jeong-ho, Park Joo-ho and Ji Dong-won are also active in the Bundesliga.
Ki Sung-yeung and Kim Bo-kyung play in the Premier League while Park Chu-young spent this past season on loan from Arsenal.
Under Hong, South Korea has tried to play a fast, counter-attacking style. And while the team has options going forward, even though former Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-sung recently declined the opportunity to return from international retirement, there are issues at the back.
The South Koreans are vulnerable from set pieces and still uncertain over the top goalkeeper with Jung Sung-ryeong struggling for form. If the defense can stay solid, South Korea has the attacking talent to trouble Group H opponents and perhaps others in the knockout stage.
''The first game is so important,'' Hong said. ''If we win that, we have a high chance of getting to the next round. But in tournaments, you never know what is going to happen and you always need a little luck.''