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 May 10, 2002 | 1223 IST

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Burden of expectation on South Korea

Eoghan Sweeney

No host nation has ever failed to get through the opening round of the World Cup finals so South Korea will have to break a half-century habit if they are not to go down in history as the first side to do so.

In 16 previous matches in the finals dating back to their first appearance in 1954, South Korea have never won a game.

Head coach Guus Hiddink and his players repeatedly insist that they can achieve their stated goal of a place in the last 16.

"If we try our hardest we can do well," said Choi Sung-yong, the former LASK Linz player who is one of the minority of players in the squad with European experience.

But Hiddink has struggled with the team since he took charge at the end of 2000. In the early days of his tenure, things seemed to be going backwards instead of forwards as the players struggled to understand the new tactics and become familiar with the many changes made to the squad.

Hiddink has repeatedly stressed: "If they're good enough, they're old enough" and this has been reflected in his insistence on playing younger players despite the objections of the Korean media, for whom age and experience count for much.

The policy has unearthed a few gems. Song Chong-gug, the Pusan I.cons full-back, has emerged as one of the best prospects Korean football has seen for some time.

Given increasing responsibility by Hiddink, the 23-year-old Song has prospered and he demonstrated that he also poses a threat going forward with a superb goal against the United States in this year's CONCACAF Gold Cup.


Among the other young guns in the squad are 20-year-olds Lee Chun-soo and Choi Tai-uk, who pose a threat on either flank.

The team also has a fairly solid core of veterans. Early 2002 saw Korea struggle up front and go out tamely in the Gold Cup semifinal, losing 3-1 to Costa Rica in Pasadena.

The 33-year-old striker Hwang Sun-hong of Japan's Kashiwa Reysol may find himself leading the line at the World Cup in much the same way as he did in the 2001 Confederations Cup.

Perhaps the most welcome news so far for Koreans in the run-up to the World Cup was the return to the squad of defender Hong Myung-bo.

Korea's most-capped player and a veteran of three World Cups, Hong is regarded with awe by much of the current squad.

While Hiddink insists no player is guaranteed a place in the team, he is an open admirer of Hong's professionalism.

"I'm very happy with his attitude," Hiddink said. "He said to me: 'I don't want a position in the team based on the past'. He's very clear-minded and very positive. He knows there's a lot of competition for places and he's determined to earn his place."


Hong will be more aware than any of his team mates of the burden Korea carry in front of their home fans.

Having played in nine matches at the World Cup finals, he has yet to be on the winning team, despite having an outstanding tournament in 1994.

Hong scored one and set up the other as Korea staged a dramatic come-from-behind 2-2 draw with Spain. He rifled home another as Korea came back from three down against Germany to lose 3-2.

The veteran defender was also present, however, for Korea's traumatic 1998 campaign, when a 3-1 loss to Mexico followed by a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Hiddink's Netherlands saw head coach Cha Bum-keun fired in mid-tournament before a 1-1 draw with Belgium restored a little pride.

Hiddink has had to watch his charges on several occasions struggle to make any headway against physically powerful European sides, the most sobering reverses coming with 5-0 losses against France in the Confederations Cup opener and against the Czech Republic in an August 2001 friendly in Brno.

Accordingly, he has placed much emphasis on physical conditioning in training.

Top-quality preparation combined with home advantage means Korea will go into the World Cup this month with a chance of getting past the first round, where they are drawn with Poland, the U.S. and Portugal.

"Of course there is pressure because we are the host country," talented 24-year-old midfielder Lee Young-pyo said. "So all the players feel responsibility more than ever and try to be better prepared physically and mentally than ever before.

"I think such things will show on the pitch and the people in the stadium will see we are changing. Considering our hard work and the advantage of being the host country, I think we can definitely get to the last 16."

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