In the past, I would have the privilege of explaining why Korea would never beat Argentina straight up in a World Cup match. It seemed like every four years, my people found it an ethnic requirement to dress up in red shirts and skirts and pretend they know what they’re talking about when the Korean national team is playing on the screen.
But I’ve moved past the pretentious instinct to nose down on bandwagon fans. For one, it’s unfair to assume that every Korean-American is ignorant in soccer (but it’s still a strong assumption). For the other, sport is an excuse for people to lose themselves in the spectacle of humans performing amazing acts of mental and physical alacrity. It doesn’t matter when you decide to take up fanhood (or abandon it), as long as you’re having fun and you don’t use it as an excuse to act like an ass, I welcome the heightened noise the bandwagon brings.
Still, I’ve gotten some time in my hands and I thought it’d be nice if I could explain the prospects of our beloved Korean national team. If not to provide some insight, then to manage our expectations. It’s still annoying to hear people speak faulty statements like: WE COULD TOTALLY BEAT URUGUAY, WHERE THE FUCK IS URUGUAY ANYWAY, WE FUCK EM UP CAUSE WE’RE KOREAN.
But in order for me to fully explain our chances, I have to go match by match. So without further ado, a preview of the Republic of Korea’s chances of running through Group H.
June 17th: Republic of Korea vs. Russia
It’s hard to truly quantify a coach’s impact on our favorite teams. Gregg Popovich is seen as a coaching savant who consistently spins gold out of waiver wires in San Antonio. Eric Spoelstra gets a fraction of the credit for successfully managing the twice-crowned Miami Heat. It’s like we have a good idea on how good a coach is, but we haven’t quite figured out how impactful they truly are on a squad.
I say this because the talent of the Russian and Korean teams are quite level, but the gap between the two teams exists in the coaching.
Fabio Capello is in many ways the Larry Brown of global soccer. He’s seen as a disciplinarian hard-ass who never fails to impose militaristic organization and machine-like efficiency on all of his squads, especially on defense. Of course, he’s also prone to wearing out welcomes and getting into spats with players that have bigger egos. Nevertheless, the man has coached many top squads in the last decade: from Juventus to Real Madrid to England to…Russia.
Hong Myung-Bo is a Korean legend who managed to build a bronze-medal winning side in the last Summer Olympics. Hong’s intelligence and knowledge of the game is unquestionable, he’s seen as the most technically proficient Korean player in the last 30 years (with no disrespect to Park Ji-Sung). Anybody who captained the super-successful 2002 iteration of Korea’s national team probably has a handle on the inner workings of the chaotic foot-based ping-pong match that is professional soccer. BUT, Hong’s coaching pedigree is porcelain compared to Capello’s.
The trademark of Capello’s teams is ruthless efficiency. They’ll stop your attacks and they’ll wait for you to overextend before countering ruthlessly. If you follow football, then think of a bull rush from Justin Smith: you might know it’s coming, but it’s another story entirely to stop it. Russia’s game plan is to invite you to test their defense, laugh at your pitiful offense, and then catch you on the break and hammer your goal.
You won’t outmuscle a country that produced Ivan Drago. You won’t outsmart a coach that’s won at the highest levels of the game. The only thing you can do is outrun them. The only advantage Korea has against Russia is speed and stamina.
But it’s an advantage they’ll need to exploit to the fullest, because progress to the next round fully depends on Korea getting points in this match. If they lose here, they lose entrance to the knockouts. It’s really that simple, and I’ll explain why later.
June 22nd: Republic of Korea vs. Algeria
I’m not scared of the Algerians, but underestimating the Algerians almost cost both the United States and England a spot in the knockout stages last World Cup. Like all underdog teams with good management, they know their strength lies in organization and energy. Remember Mirror Matches in the old school Mortal Kombat games? It’s kind of like that. Korea is facing a version of itself that’s slightly stronger, but also slightly slower.
This is why the most important part of this match will not be when the ball is in open play, it’s during set pieces in the Korean half. We have some height with Kim Shin-Wook measuring at 6’5″ (by the way, since when did we start breeding young’ns that goddamn tall?!), but if the pace of this game is slow as I think it will be, all it will take is one Algerian player outmuscling our not-so-impressive backline and bulleting a header past our not-so-competent keeper.
The key to this match is keeping possession and applying constant pressure on the Algerian half. Our most talented players live on the flanks, running up and down the sides of the pitch while either cutting inside for a shot or crossing the ball into the box. We have players that can sprint, dribble the ball, and shoot on the wings, but the key players in this match live in the middle. The middle of the park is where the ball naturally lives in most soccer games. If you dominate the middle, then much like hockey, you control the pace and pressure of the game.
If Korea lets Algeria get any steam, then match gets much more complicated. As obvious as it sounds, this game will be won by whoever maintains the pressure. Neither team is rock-solid in defense, so it’s really going to come down to where the ball is going to live in this match. If it lives in Algeria’s half, then Korea will win this game.
June 26th: Republic of Korea vs. Belgium
A draw. A draw would be amazing. A draw would be something to celebrate. Everyone should pray for a draw, because it’s HIGHLY unlikely Korea can beat Belgium straight up.
Why? Belgium is to soccer what the Thunder are to basketball. They have a stupid amount of young talent, and all of their starters can count themselves among the top 10 at their positions in THE ENTIRE WORLD. This team is stacked, and the only reason they’re only considered to be a World Cup dark horse is because they’re not as experienced as the traditional tournament favorites (like Argentina, Germany, Spain, and of course Brazil).
And in the face of this fact, you might say – Korea’s been to 9 World Cups! Our wealth of experience should make up for whatever deficiencies we have in class and talent. The answer to that is a hearty laugh and a stone face. In this group, Belgium is like the Iceland team in The Mighty Ducks 2. They have every chance to score 11 on any of the teams in this group.
The ONLY way we win this match is if Belgium gets hit with injuries or suspensions leading up to this match, which is entirely possible seeing as it’s the 3rd match on the schedule. The ONLY way we draw this match is if we RUN.
Since 2002, Korea’s best asset was its stamina. We might not have classier players, we might not be as technically gifted, and we’re definitely not as big. But we’ll run longer. We’ll keep coming. We’ll play with the same exact energy in the 90th minute as we did in the 9th minute. And plus, we’re used to extremely humid and hot weather (while European teams might wilt in the Brazilian sun, native Koreans will probably compare the temperatures to a nice summer stroll in humid-as-fuck Seoul). The weather isn’t a factor for us as it might be for the European teams.
But our stamina is tiny advantage in the face of the overwhelming gap of class between the two teams. Here are the Belgian players: Vincent Kompany captained the English Premiership champions, Thibault Courtois was a major reason why Atletico Madrid beat out Real Madrid and Barcelona for the La Liga title, Eden Hazard was the best player on Chelsea’s squad, Romelu Lukaku scored 15 goals in the EPL last year, Adnan Januzaj is the reason Manchester United isn’t worried about the future, Marouane Fellaini has a Sideshow Bob afro that might explain why he’s so homicidally good at enforcing the middle of the pitch.
If none of this means anything to you, then just know this: if a top club won this year, a Belgian was most likely a key part of that win.
When you’re going against a team that is stacked with Nike and Adidas endorsed players, you’re going to need a huge helping of luck to walk out with a draw, let alone a win.
The reason why we need to win against Russia and Algeria is because this game is most likely going to be a loss. Group H is Belgium’s to lose, and the rest of the teams will be fighting for 2nd place. If Korea loses to either Russia or Algeria, they’ll be looking at another group exit loss and a premature ending for our fans.
So will we win? Probably not. If you’ve been following Korea’s warm-up to the World Cup, our chemistry and our hustle is simply not there. The national team was in shambles in qualifying, and while Hong might be a great manager, he doesn’t have enough time to cultivate a winning mentality with our team. It’s not a repeat of 2002, or even 2010.
But let’s just take this World Cup for what it is. A chance to get together with fellow Koreans, drink during the day, chant repetitive chants, and talk shit about Japanese people. At the end of the day, the World Cup is more than sport, it’s a nationalistic opportunity for people around the world to take pride and unite in behind their best boys. I don’t like to take too much pride in being birthed in one ethnic pool over the other, but this is one of the few times where I think it’s ok to fly my given stripes and take pride in my ethnicity, regardless of Kendrick Lamar says.