2010 World Cup profile: South Korea
Park Ji-Sung, who became the first Asian to play in a Champions League final, with Man U, captains South Korea out of the midfield.
Through April, SI.com will profile two World Cup teams a week. We continue with South Korea. Click here for the full archive.
Park Ji-Sung, who inherited the captain's armband in October 2008, scored a team-high five goals in qualifying as South Korea booked a seventh consecutive trip to the finals without losing a single match. Known for his extraordinary work rate, the talismanic midfielder rose to national prominence after scoring the goal against Portugal that sent the Koreans through to the knockout stage of Korea/Japan 2002. A versatile talent who can play any midfield position, Park became the first Korean player to win the UEFA Champions League (with Manchester United in 2008).
After a prolific tour of duty with the Under-20s culminated with Asian Young Player of the Year laurels in 2004, Park Chu-Young was tabbed for a breakout performance in Germany four years ago. But the slippery striker extolled as "Asian Baggio" played just 63 minutes in one match as South Korea finished third in Group B. Park established an effective partnership up top with Lee Kuen-Ho and netted four goals during qualifying. The 24-year-old, who recently signed a contract extention to remain with Monaco until 2013, takes most of the free kicks.
One of the national team's emerging players, Lee Chung-Yong shone during South Korea's unbeaten qualifying campaign and earned a permanent starting position on the right wing. The 21-year-old has impressed followers of the English Premier League with his quick adjustment since joining Bolton on a $3 million transfer last summer. He's scored four goals in 20 games while improving his strength (and his English) and assimilating with his teammates. Blessed with fast feet and creative vision, Lee provides Korea an effective attacking counterpoint to Park Ji-Sung on the opposite wing.
What to watch for
The Koreans are no strangers to the World Cup stage, having played in every one since 1986. They've made it past the group stage just once -- during the country's memorable run to the semifinals eight years ago -- but the team's results have followed an upward trend over that span.
While the team chemistry under three-time coach Huh Jung-Moo remains a strength, depth is a weakness. Goal-scoring responsibilies fall almost exclusively on Park Chu-Young, the team's lone reliable striker. First-choice center backs Cho Yong-Hyung and Lee Jung-Soo are small for their position, a vulnerability that European sides could exploit on set pieces. That undefeated qualifying record did have a string of disappointing draws (including a pair against political enemy North Korea). A repeat of this leisurely start in South Africa will prove fatal.
Park Ji-Sung rightfully gets most of the attention in the midfield, but it's worth keeping an eye on midfielder Ki Sung-Yong, who joined Celtic from FC Seoul in the January transfer window. The 21-year-old is considered one of Asia's most promising up-and-coming prospects (along with Lee Chung-Yong).
Another player to watch is goalkeeper Lee Woon-Jae, the 36-year-old who became a national hero during the shootout victory over Spain in '02, but whose diminutive 5-foot-11 frame will be stretched to the limit against some of the world's most accomplished sides.
South Korea may have overachieved with a fourth-place finish in '02, and it's tempting to chalk up that memorable run to home-field advantage (not to mention dubious officiating). But after following up that charmed run with a strong performance in '06, the Koreans are capable of advancing out of one of the toughest groups in the opening round.
Key match in group stage
June 12 vs. Greece. The Koreans know as well as any side the importance of squeezing out points in the opening round. South Korea was the only country to amass four group-stage points at Germany 2006 and not advance. Three points in the opener against the Greeks could prove vital with a heavyweight (Argentina) and a team playing in its own region (Nigeria) waiting in the wings.
Celebrity scouting report: Y.E. Yang*
Our individual talent isn't at the level of the Brazils and Germanys of the world, but cohesion and chemistry throughout Korean football history have always been over-par. What Korea lacks in pure talent and athleticism is more than made up by such togetherness. ... I do think this is the best Korean team so far, but it just can't finish fourth as it did in '02 due to the simple fact that Korea will be playing in South Africa, not in Korea. But Huh understands the Korean psyche a lot better than Guus Hiddink and his Dutch coaching staff did. Having a Korean coach again could bring some of the lost home-field advantage back to our players' psyche. ... Park Ji-Sung is the motor and heart of the team. He would have to drop back to the midfield from his usual position with Manchester United, but there, he can do more damage with his constant and relentless scurrying around the pitch and distribute the ball to our other players. ... To advance, we have to draw with Argentina and hope for an off-day from Lionel Messi (as Tiger Woods did with me at Hazeltine) and then win big against Nigeria and Greece. One win cannot be enough, as we saw during '06 -- two wins will get us through comfortably.
* The '09 PGA Championship winner is from Jeju-do, South Korea. As told to Jonah Freedman.