ROCKY ROAD, HIGH EXPECTATIONS
Korea Republic didn't take the easiest route to their eighth consecutive World Cup, finishing second to Iran in their AFC group, and it cost their previous manager, Choi Kang-Hee, his job. But some recent results, most notably a 2-1 victory over eighth-ranked Switzerland in a friendly on Nov. 15, has given Asia’s most accomplished side hope for a productive tournament.
GROUP H SCHEDULE
WHO GOT THEM THERE
Park Chu-Young, F, Arsenal (at left): He’s one of his country’s most popular players, who started his club career with FC Seoul, before rising to fame thanks to a crucial free-kick goal in a 2-2 draw against Nigeria that sent the South Koreans to the knockout round of the 2010 World Cup. He also scored the first goal in Korea Republic’s 2-0 win over Japan in the bronze medal game of the London Olympics. And he leads his team with six goals in WCQ games for this year’s tournament.
Lee Keun-Ho, F, Sangju Sangmu Phoenix: He has 18 goals for the Taegeuk Warriors and five in qualifying games for this year’s tournament. A club player in Korea Republic’s top league most of his career, even spurning offers from top European sides along the way, he’s scored 14 times for his current club in 2013.
Son Heung-Min, F, Bayer Leverkusen: He may not have received much run under the Koreans' former coach through qualifying, but new boss Hong Myung-Bo appears ready to hand him the reigns. Still only 21, many are waiting for Son to be the country’s next big thing. He certainly has some highlight-reel goals, including this one.
Hong Myung-Bo (at right) is Korea Republic’s most-capped player who was on the field for the country’s proudest moment when they advanced to the semifinals on their home soil in the 2002 World Cup. Now the onetime LA Galaxy defender takes over for much-maligned Choi, giving his countrymen hope he’ll lead their team back to the promised land.
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
WCQ record: 4-2-2, 14 pts. / 13 GF, 7 GA (second place in Asia’s Group A)
The South Koreans made it by the skin of their teeth, nicking Uzbekistan only on goal differential for the second spot in their group and finishing behind Iran. They lost twice to Iran, both by 1-0 score lines, and also fell 2-1 to Lebanon. But thanks to big back-to-back wins over Qatar (4-1 on June 8, 2012) and Lebanon (3-0, June 12), the Taegeuk Warriors made it through.
WORLD CUP HISTORY
Korea Republic’s fourth-place finish as the host country, along with Japan, in 2002 is still held up as the standard. That year, they finished atop their group, which included the USMNT, beat Italy 2-1 in a memorable extratime game in the round of 16, and then a legendary win over Spain on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals. Their historic run ended with a 1-0 loss to the Germans in the semifinals, before losing 3-2 to Turkey in the third-place game. But only one other time have they advanced out of group stage, the second being in the 2010 tournament when they lost 2-1 to Uruguay in the first knockout stage.
The Taeguk Warriors' own boss may have the closest connection to MLS, as Hong Myung-Bo finished his storied playing career with the LA Galaxy, making 38 appearances over 2003 and '04 and becoming the first Korean to suit up in the league ... Retired Vancouver Whitecaps defender Lee Young-Pyo is one of the Koreans' most decorated players. He has recorded 127 appearances from 1999 to 2011 with his national team and is one of just seven players to have more than 100 caps for the senior side … Korea Republic have played the USMNT six times, second most of any other Asian side, and will be the Americans' first opponent in 2014 in a World Cup warm-up at StubHub Center on Feb 1. They were in the United States’ group in the 2002 World Cup and played them to a 1-1 draw in pool play.