South Korea bracing for tight finish in qualifying
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Koreans are no longer really accustomed to tension and drama when it comes to World Cup qualification, so a small case of nerves is a new experience for a generation of football fans.
Asia’s most successful World Cup team can only look enviously this week at neighbor and bitter rival Japan, which can secure its spot at the 2014 World Cup with a point at home against Australia on Tuesday in Group B.
Anything less than a win for South Korea against Lebanon in Beirut in Group A will put on pressure on the South Koreans in their last two group games as they seek an eighth successive World Cup appearance.
The last time qualification went to the wire for the South Koreans was in 1994. And while they’re in a healthy position in the five-team group, from which the top two automatically qualify, it’s still tight.
A repeat of the November 2011 loss to Lebanon — dubbed by the domestic media as the “Beirut Disaster” — would leave South Korea in second place behind Uzbekistan and possibly level on points with Iran with two games remaining. Both teams travel to Seoul later in June.
With the domestic league slowly recovering from a massive match-fixing scandal in 2011 and a number of its European-based players struggling for playing time, a failure to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1982 would be a major setback for the game in the country.
“It’s a critical thing for Korean football,” Park Yong-soo of the Korea Football Association’s International Department told The Associated Press. “From the KFA point of view we look at the two sides of football here - youth development and the national team. The success of the national team helps to inspire children to play the game. We have seen this before. Success at the 2002 World Cup inspired the generation that won the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics, which in turns inspires the next generation. The World Cup is critical for youth development.”
The World Cup in 2002 was a high point for football in the country. There was nationwide excitement and pride as the national team reached the semifinals. That brought people to the same stadiums to watch the local K-League with the 2002 average attendance close to 15,000. In the years since, the figure slowly declined down to an average of just over 7,000 in 2012 as baseball took center stage, helped by a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics.
Missing out on 2014 would be a blow to football’s battle with baseball.
“It would not have a massive effect in the short-term,” Park said. “Over time though it would cause damage in terms of marketing, sponsorship and popularity of the game at all levels.”
Baseball may currently be the No. 1 sport in the country but its position is not yet dominant. In the first month of the 2013 season, the baseball league saw a 20 percent decline in attendance from the previous year. In contrast, the K-League has recorded a rise in spectator numbers and crowd averages are back to about 10,000. The league has recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, undergone a major rebranding and introduced promotion and relegation.
Montenegrin striker Dzenan Radoncic has played in the K-League for eight years and can’t imagine the national team not appearing at the World Cup.
“They are in a decent position but it would be a huge disappointment if they don’t qualify,” said Radoncic, who was unsuccessful in 2012 in his attempt to become a Korean citizen. “It would obviously have an effect on the general popularity of football and there would be less attention. Financially too it would be a problem. But if the team does fail, perhaps (the KFA) will then put more money into the game, pay for better foreign players or coaches.”
Radoncic, now with Suwon but a winner of the Asian Champions League with Seongnam in 2010, doesn’t believe that a Korean absence from Brazil would stop foreign players joining K-League clubs.
“I came because I got a good financial offer. I had never thought about Korea, but the money was good,” he said. “From the World Cup in 2002, I could see there were great stadiums and infrastructure and the fans were great, but not appearing at the World Cup would not be a problem in attracting good talent.”
Just how tense the final two games are against Uzbekistan and Iran will depend largely on the result in Beirut on Tuesday. South Korea is expected to win at Lebanon, but a shocking 2-1 loss on the last trip to Beirut did leave some after-effects.
That result, in the third round of qualification, cost coach Cho Kwang-rae his job. His successor, Choi Kang-hee, insists that there will not be a repeat of that defeat despite the fact that he is without English Premier League star Ki Sung-yeung, 2012 Olympic captain Koo Ja-cheol and former Arsenal striker Park Chu-young.
“We are preparing differently and the players are determined to get the result we need,” Choi said. “The Lebanon game is the most important game for us. Of course, we are going there to win. We will show our best in the stadium then return to play at home in a favorable position.
“Lebanon may be bottom in the group but at home it defeated Iran. Also, we lost there in the third round. At home, it is a strong team. We have to be careful.”