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(News Focus) Having stumbled into World Cup, S. Korea has work cut out

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

By Yoo Jee-ho

ULSAN, June 19 (Yonhap) -- Making the FIFA World Cup for the eighth consecutive time is surely a huge accomplishment for South Korea.

The long-time Asian football power, however, backed into the 2014 tournament in Brazil. South Korea lost to Iran 1-0 here on Tuesday, but still maintained a slim edge in the goal difference tiebreaker over Uzbekistan to earn one of four automatic spots for Asia.

South Korea made things more difficult for itself than it should have, and it only highlighted problems that need to be addressed quickly. Otherwise, the country's stay in Brazil will be very short.

The latter part of the fourth Asian qualification round was, in particular, a struggle for South Korea. Paired with Iran, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Lebanon in Group A, South Korea was early on seen as a favorite to rank among the top two in the group and easily earn an automatic spot in the 2014 tournament.

And yet for the first time in 20 years for South Korea, a World Cup berth came down to the last qualifying match.

To start the final round, South Korea trounced Qatar and Lebanon in a four-day span last June by a combined 7-1.

Three months later, things quickly turned sour as South Korea was held to a 2-2 draw by Uzbekistan in Tashkent. The underdog Uzbekistan outplayed South Korea, which was fortunate to earn a point on the road.

In October, South Korea suffered its first loss in the final round, as Iran prevailed 1-0 in Tehran despite playing most of the second half a man down.

With the next qualifier still five months away, South Korea scheduled a pair of friendlies for a tune-up. But it lost to Australia 2-1 in November and then got blanked 4-0 by Croatia in February this year.

It marked South Korea's first three-game losing streak in 11 years.

The qualification round resumed in March, and South Korea was lucky to beat Qatar 2-1 at home. Only a last-second goal by Son Heung-min saved South Korea from further humiliation.

The country tried to regroup for a crucial 21 day, three-game stretch in June. It started off with a 1-1 draw against Lebanon in Beirut, where, once again, a last-gasp goal salvaged the underachieving Koreans.

Back at home, South Korea needed an own goal by Uzbekistan to defeat the Central Asians 1-0. South Korea didn't get any help from Iran here on Tuesday, as the visitors blanked the home side 1-0.

The last four matches for South Korea had one common, disconcerting trend: the team's inability to score.

Under head coach Choi Kang-hee, who replaced Cho Kwang-rae near the end of the third qualification round in December 2011, South Korea underwent a substantial shift in offensive schemes.

Cho followed 'tiki-taka' football perfected by Spain and FC Barcelona, many of whose stars are on the Spanish national team. Spain is the reigning World Cup and European champion, while Barcelona has also enjoyed domestic and continental success of late. Both have been relying on short, quick passes through tight space and players' movement without the ball to generate scoring chances. Such a style of play has also allowed both teams to maintain superiority in ball possession, and they've also been blessed with skilled players who could hold on to the ball for extended stretches.

While Cho never had the same luxury of talent, his preaching of that European style created more diversity on offense. If anything, South Korean games had some entertainment value.

With Choi at the helm, however, the team's offensive flair virtually disappeared. Choi has mostly stuck with the same, predictable strategy: sending his fullbacks down either wing, having them cross for tall forwards, often the 196-centimeter-tall Kim Shin-wook, and hoping the ball would somehow find a South Korean player in the box.

Long passes by South Korean fullbacks and midfielders have been the equivalent of desperate Hail Mary passes thrown by NFL quarterbacks -- they launch one up in the air and hope for the best.

Considering Choi's coaching background, this has been an ironic development. Before taking over the national team, Choi had guided the K League Classic club Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors to two domestic league championships and one AFC Champions League title between 2006 and 2011.

During his tenure, Jeonbuk became the most feared offense in the South Korean league.

However, with considerably more offensive talent on the national team than on Jeonbuk, Choi hasn't been able to generate much output.

Experts say South Korean football under Choi has taken more than a few steps back, regressing to the style of football played in the 1970s. They point out that Choi's unusual status likely forced the coach to rely on conservative schemes that would make sure his team wouldn't lose.

On the very first day on the job, Choi declared he would only coach the national team through the qualifiers and will return to Jeonbuk afterward, whether South Korea qualifies for the World Cup or not.

Park Moon-sung, an analyst with a local network SBS, said a new head coach should try to bring positive changes to the team.

"Choi Kang-hee really held himself back as the lame duck coach and he mostly played not to lose," Park said. "A lot of other countries have trouble scoring goals. But against Uzbekistan, for instance, crossing for Kim Shin-wook's head from start to finish was a terrible move. A new coach will probably make more changes on offense than anywhere."

Shin Moon-sun, a TV analyst and a professor of sports statistical analysis at Myongji University, called Choi's system "archaic," and said the Korea Football Association (KFA) should immediately name the successor to Choi so that a new system could take roots in time for the World Cup.

"The global trend in football is to increase pressure on ball carriers and to speed up transition," Shin noted. "The national team has had some speedy, talented wingers like Lee Chung-yong (Bolton Wanderers in England) and Son Heung-min (Bayer Leverkusen in Germany), but Choi never capitalized on their presence."

Shin claimed Choi never had a consistent philosophy when selecting players or building schemes because he didn't have to look past the qualifying stage.

"In order for the national team to improve for the World Cup proper, (the KFA) should worry long and hard about what type of a coach should take over," Shin said.

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