Northern Ireland v Korea Republic

Words Michael Church


Few nations in Asian football have a record of sustained excellence that can compare with that of Korea Republic (South Korea) as the country prepares to embark on an Asian record 10th trip to the World Cup finals this summer.

in the Premier League for Tottenham, with games broadcast nationwide every week with an obsessive focus on the 25-year-old. But the country’s talent base extends far beyond the left boot of Son. Midfielder Ki Sungyeung, who is closing in on his 100th cap for South Korea, will be no stranger to avid watchers of the Scottish and English Premier Leagues after stints with Celtic and currently Swansea City. Germany-based playmaker Koo Jacheol has an eye for a clever pass, while Lee Jaesung is rapidly establishing himself as one of the most exciting talents in Asian football. Clubs from South Korea have dominated Asian continental competitions over the last three decades and seven members of Shin’s squad for the game in Belfast come from the Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors club that won the country’s K-League title last season having captured the Asian Champions League in 2016. That was Jeonbuk’s second continental title in a decade and was one of six South Korean successes in the competition since 2003, including Shin’s title win with Seongnam Ilhwa in 2010. The national team, too, ranks consistently among Asia’s best. In December the South Koreans won the regional East Asian Championship, a tournament played against fellow World Cup qualifiers Japan as well as China and North Korea. But while the South Koreans have long been a dominant force in Asia, Shin knows there is a need to close the gap on the game’s upper tier in preparation for Russia 2018 and he is seeking to bring greater tactical flexibility to his team ahead of June. “I think South Korea is, little by little, getting better,” said Shin after his side clinched the East Asian Championship title with a 4-1 win over a second- string Japan.

Tottenham Hotspur striker Son Heungmin and his team-mates are just the latest batch of South Korean players to book their tickets for the World Cup finals from a country that has a record of continued success at all levels within the Asian game since the mid-1980s. While Korea first qualified for the World Cup as far back as 1954 and were the winners of the continent’s first two regional championships, the Asian Cup, in 1956 and 1960, it has been since the dawn of the professional game on the peninsula that the country has stood at the pinnacle of Asian football. Professional football arrived in South Korea in 1984 and Shin Taeyong’s team follow in the footsteps of those who qualified for the World Cup in 1986 – led by two-time UEFA Cup winner Cha Bumkun – and have maintained an unbroken qualification record since. But the country’s record at the finals is patchy at best, with the high point the run to the semi-finals in 2002 on home soil – where they lost to Germany – before again reaching the knockout rounds in South Africa in 2010. The target once more this year is to advance from the group phase. They have been drawn to take on Germany as well as Sweden and Mexico in Russia, and coach Shin has been building steadily towards the World Cup kick-off over the last six months. Korean teams have a reputation for being robust, quick and direct with their players hard working, disciplined and with a strong fighting spirit. In recent years an increasing number of players have moved overseas to play in Europe and elsewhere around Asia. Five of Shin’s 23-man squad for their games in Europe this month – they are due to face Poland after taking on Northern Ireland – are currently attached to clubs in Europe and a further four play in Japan’s J-League. Son Heungmin is, not surprisingly, the poster boy for South Korean football given his exploits


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