Republic of Korea / 대한민국 / Daehan Minguk / South Korea
- Capital: Seoul / 서울시
- Official Languages: Korean, Korean Sign Language
- Nicknames: 태극전사 (Taegeuk Warriors); 아시아의 호랑이 (Tigers of Asia); Taegeuk Nangja (Taegeuk Ladies)
- Association: Korea Football Association (KFA) / 대한축구협회
- FIFA Code: KOR
- Best World Cup Result (Men): Fourth Place (2002)
- Best World Cup Result (Women): Round of 16 (2015)
- Best Asian Cup Result (Men): WINNERS (1956, 1960)
- Best Asian Cup Result (Women): Third Place (2003)
- Best EAFF Championship Result (Men): WINNERS (Various)
- Best EAFF Championship Result (Women): WINNERS (2005)
- Highest FIFA Ranking (Men): 17th (December 1998)
- Highest FIFA Ranking (Women): 14th (Various)
- Lowest FIFA Ranking (Men): 69th (November 2014 – January 2015)
- Lowest FIFA Ranking (Women): 26th (August 2004)
- Most Capped Players: Cha Bum-kun & Hong Myung-bo – 136 caps
- Top Scorers: Cha Bum-kun & Ji So-yun – 58 goals [as of Jan 2021]
The Republic of Korea (ROK), also known as South Korea, is currently one of the strongest teams in Asian football. The international team first appeared in the 1954 World Cup but sadly lost 0-9 and 0-7 to Hungary and Turkey respectively. However, despite a World Cup baptism of fire, they managed to win the first two Asian Cup competitions in both 1956 and 1960. Surprisingly for a county of Korea’s prowess, they have not won the Asian Cup since, finishing as finalists four times and not adding to their trophy haul beyond their 1960 home win. After a barren spell between the 1960’s and 1970’s, Korea would return to the World Cup scene in 1986 and have qualified for every World Cup since then, although normally not making it out of the group stage of the tournament. That situation all changed in the 2002 World Cup, which they co-hosted with Japan. Under the management of the wiley and tactically asute Guus Hiddink, not only did the Taegeuk Warriors manage to achieve their first-ever World Cup victory, they surprisingly reached the semi-finals of the tournament in one of the most famous success stories in World Cup history. This success finally brought football into the Korean sportsfan’s attention, and the sport started to make an impact in a country where baseball is the major sport.
South Korea continue to be one of the strongest Asian teams, and continually qualify for the World Cup (as mentioned previously). In addition, the women’s team has also improved their results and have become regular attendees of World Cups qualifying for the past two tournaments, and reached the Round of 16 in the 2015 edition, held in Canada. With both the men’s and women’s teams having some of the best players in the Asian confederation (Son Heung-min and Ji So-yun for examples), it is hoped that both teams can progress and potentially win Asian Cups and regional tournaments for the next 5-10 years, whilst continuing to qualify for the World Cups and make bigger impacts in major tournaments.
Talking about one of the footballing powerhouses in Asian football in both the men’s and women’s game, and who memorably reached the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup that they co-hosted, we interviewed the brilliant Muyeol Jung. Muyeol is an English-based Korean writer, and an English FA/Korea FA trained referee, who is the Daegu FC columnist (hence his Twitter avatar being Daegu’s mascot, Victo) for K League United, an English language website and podcast that focuses on everything involving Korean football. To find both Muyeol’s and KLU’s social media accounts, website and podcast, follow the links below:
- Muyeol’s Twitter: @Daegu_freak
- Muyeol’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/muyeol_jung/
- KLU’s Twitter: @KLeagueUnited
- KLU’s Website: http://www.kleagueunited.com/
- KLU’s Podcast: Spotify
- KLU’s Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/KLeagueUnited/
- KLU’s YouTube: KLU YouTube Channel
- KLU’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KLeagueUnited/
- KLU’s Instagram: kleagueunited
Q. Who would you say is your country’s best player and coach/manager of all-time, and the reasonings behind the choices?
For the men’s team, I think no fan would argue against Dutch manager Guus Hiddink being the best manager in Korean football. Not to mention what he achieved with the Taeguk Warriors in the 2002 World Cup, where Korea finished fourth in the competition, he utterly revolutionised Korean football by replacing old-fashioned practice and training methods with science-driven analyses and up-to-date training methods. It is not exaggerating to say that Korean football can be categorised into the ‘pre-Hiddink era‘ and the ‘post-Hiddink era‘.
In regards to the best player, Park Ji-sung deserves it. To be honest, he is not a player capable of changing a game with individual magical skills, but on and off the pitch, his presence in the team would be literally felt in the nation’s game and other lads’ eyes. Despite being a Manchester United player, he was sincerely hailed for his nature of being humble and his commitment. Perhaps, it was not a coincidence that the Korean national team suffered from a bit of a bumpy period right after his retirement from the national team in 2011.
On the women’s side, there’s no equivalent of Guus Hiddink yet, but I believe former manager Yoon Deokyeo should be the best. Being in charge of the girls for seven years until the 2019 summer, he made some notable footprints in women’s football history; two straight Asian Games bronze medals, the last 16 in the 2015 Canada World Cup, and making it to 2019 France World Cup finals.
The best player for the women’s side is definitely Ji Soyun, currently playing for Chelsea Women FC in England. She became the fourth woman to represent the nation more than 100 games and has been relishing her 7 years stay in England with the Blues.
Q. Who could be regarded as a ‘cult hero’ in terms of the national team both in the past and present?
For the men’s team, I would go for Kim Byungji and Lee Chunsoo. Both had very successful professional careers including being part of 2002 World Cup semi-finalists. Kim Byung-ji is a legendary goalkeeper in Korea, making 706 appearances in the K League, but his time in a Korea shirt completely went wrong because of one mistake he made that cost him his entire national team career. In a friendly competition against Paraguay in early 2001, he dribbled out of the box to the halfway line before he narrowly cleared the ball away. This was the last straw between him and Guus Hiddink and he wasn’t given a single minute of play in the 2002 World Cup.
Meanwhile, former Ulsan Hyundai and Real Sociedad forward Lee Chunsoo is often missed among fans for his commitment and passion when fans don’t see any hunger in players. In fact, he made lots of controversies and headlines in the media because of his behaviour and remarks off the pitch. Nevertheless, he is one of the most beloved players for lots of memorable moments. Particularly, the scene of him bursting into tears on camera after Korea lost to Switzerland in the 2006 World Cup still remains in many fans’ hearts. Coming to the present figure, I think Lee Seungwoo fits the profile as he wasn’t that successful in his club career, but is mostly loved because of a few moments he created, such as his goal in 2018 Asian Games finals.
Regarding the women’s side, there wasn’t such a big fandom created until early 2010s, but Park Eunseon and Kim Jungmi could be few candidates. At present, left wingback Jang Seulki is the big character for the women’s team for her role on and off the pitch. She is nicknamed the “Welsh Corgi” because of her resemblance and her hardworking attitude on the line.
Q. Of the current team, who would you say is the best player from Korea currently?
At present, the best player for the men’s side is undoubtedly Son Heungmin from Tottenham Hotspur. What he has achieved as a footballer is literally unprecedented in Korean football history, and it has been a great pleasure for many Koreans to watch him play in one of the world’s best football leagues.
For the women’s team, Ji Soyun is equivalent to Son for the men’s team. She was truly a pioneer in Korean women’s football by becoming the first Korean female player to move to England in 2014, and has been relishing a successful time as one of the key assets for Chelsea WFC with winning lots of silverware.
Q. How would you describe the current state/performance of the national team?
Because of the global pandemic, both teams are not very active as they would have been, but I am quite positive with their performances.
I know the manager, Paulo Bento, often gets a bit of stick for his stubbornness in tactics and player selection, but we are in the process of building upon his football philosophy and tactics. I must admit that I was also disappointed with them being knocked out in the quarter-finals of the 2019 Asian Cup by Qatar, but in general they are moving in the right direction with one clear idea.
For the women’s team, it is a bit early to assess their performances as there have been only a few games played with new English manager Colin Bell at the helm. However, the appointment itself has revitalised the team’s morale after a brutal ‘reality check’ in the 2019 France World Cup and has kept the team moving forward. This February they are set to play against China twice, with an Olympics qualification place at stake, with the team looking to make it to Tokyo (if it goes ahead) for the first time in their history.
Q. Are there any Korean players who you think we should be focusing on for the future – who would you say is the most exciting up & coming talent from the country?
I would recommend two young attackers; Oh Sehun (Gimcheon Sangmu) and Song Minkyu (Pohang Steelers) in the men’s side. Both haven’t received a call-up for the senior team yet, but they are really promising talents to watch. Oh Sehun is well known for his involvement with the 2019 U20 World Cup runners-up squad and the 2020 AFC U23 winning squad. One advantage that he has is that he will have completed his manditory military duty by this summer, something that is often a pain in the neck for many young footballers in South Korea.
Pohang Steelers’ forward Song Minkyu became a rising star by winning the Young Player of the Year award in 2020 K League with ten goals and six assists from 26 appearances. What makes him outstanding among his colleagues is that he is equipped with a great skill of dribbling on the side with lots of creativity.
On the women’s side, 1998 year-born Kang Chaerim is the next generation for the women’s side. She has smoothly settled into professional football with Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels, which is regarded as the strongest side in Korea. 2000 year-born duo Kang Jiwoo and Choo Hyojoo deserve more attention also. They have already caught the eyes of Colin Bell, and have made their senior team debuts last year in the Olympics football qualification round.
Q. Looking at South Korea’s international history, what would you say has been the best game, result or performance for the national team in your opinion?
For the men’s team, this is certainly no brainer; 2002 Korea/Japan World Cup where Korea finished fourth after losing 3-2 to Turkey in the third place playoff match, and I don’t think we can get close to that milestone any soon realistically. In terms of a single game performance, I would like to pick up a historic 2-0 win over Germany in the 2018 Russia World Cup. The result itself is something unbelievable, but what makes it more special is that it served as a breakthrough to some sluggish Korean football that had existed since the 2014 World Cup. Thanks to the ‘Miracle of Kazan‘, Korean football regained its popularity from the public and continued to enjoy the triumph in the 2018 Asian Games and 2019 U20 World Cup.
For the women’s team, the 2015 Canada World Cup is something we are proud of. It was our second qualification after 12 year’s absence at the international competition, and they successfully managed to progress to the knockout stage with four points earned from three strongest opponents; Brazil, Costa Rica and Spain. This was a phenomenal achievement for us compared to our maiden appearance in 2003 where the women had to come away with three straight defeats in the group stage.
Q. Likewise, is there a performance or result which is regarded as the team’s lowest point?
The lowest point for the men’s side would be the 2014 Brazil World Cup where the Hong Myungbo-led Korea Team finished fourth in Group H. There was a big amount of optimism in the media after Korea was drawn with relatively winnable teams Belgium, Algeria, and Russia, which subsequently escalated expectations so high. However, it turned out to be the worst scenario for the Koreans as they were absolutely battered by Algeria before they lost to Belgium. It was a combination of a lack of Hong’s experience and the wrong squad selection.
Recent history feels more painful, but a cruel reality check in the 2019 France Women’s World Cup will remain as one of the lowest points for the Korean women’s team. It was almost like the same feelings that I had more than 20 years ago when the Korea men’s side were absolutely schooled by Netherlands in a 5-0 defeat in the 1998 France World Cup. The women’s exit from the World Cup came as an even bigger shock after we had been used to tasting a bit of sweet success on the Asia continent.
Q. What are the best and worst things about being a fan of the Korean national team?
Well, the best part of being a fan of the national team is that you can unite with others, no matter which club you support or what background you have in general. Particularly in Asia, including Korea where nationalism is still prevalent, this is the time you can feel you can be free of rows and conflicts.
The worst part is that ironically there are some inherent arguments between fans. When things develop badly in a game, there’s a strong tension growing between fan groups. As a lot of fans tend to have interests on the national team or Europe-based players, so the K League-based players become scapegoats for criticism and this gap seems to get wider apart. I think this phenomenon might be universal, Korea’s problem looks quite intense and distressful. For example the Korean team were welcomed back on their return to Korea with some toffees thrown at the players to humiliate them.
Q. Have the fans adopted some kind of unofficial anthem to sing along to before/during/after matches?
There are a couple of popular songs that you will always hear in the national team’s game; Oh Pilseung Korea and Arirang.
Oh Pilseung Korea was a song with a creation of phrase meaning “Oh! Korea, we should win!” based on Bucheon FC’s song before 2002 World Cup. This song was later remixed by commercial singers later.
Arirang is one of the most beloved and representative folk songs with lots of variations in regions. There are a few speculations about the meaning of Arirang, but it still remains mysterious. The song adopted by football fans is from the Greater Seoul area and it is electric when you hear it in a game.
Q. Do you have a favourite or iconic shirt from the whole time of the national team?
I personally prefer shirts from the 1990s to post 2000s because they have more tailored features in design than simple templates.
Among them, my favourite shirts are 1996-1998 home and away shirts that were worn during 1998 France World Cup qualifications. They have a two-lined big wave on the front, inspired by the yin and yang pattern on the national flag. All the colours used also are based on the flag. Sixteen years later, the similar pattern re-emerged in the 2012 away shirt, which was very well remembered for the shirts worn in 2012 London Olympics football tournament.
Q. Finally, what are your hopes for the future of the Korean national team?
For the men’s side, many fans (including me) would hope to see them win an Asian Cup. Despite being touted as one of powerhouses beyond the continent, it is utterly embarrassing to accept that it has been over half a century since Korea’s two consecutive wins in the first two editions of the continental tournament. So I’d like to see it as soon as possible, and claiming to be the strongest in the continent.
When it comes to the women’s team, I want them to make it to the Olympics in the short term. Even if they fail, I will not see it as failure yet, because I know how barren the current setting is for Korean women’s football. What I want to see is that women’s football thrive domestically and get more women involved with football in any form of activity. Despite their efforts and success, the public’s perception remains barren and negative. Hopefully, it will pay off and bring more fans to the grounds.
A massive 대단히 감사합니다 to Muyeol for answering our questions on the Taegeuk Warriors. Remember you can find his excellent accounts, and K League United‘s, in the links at the top of the blogpage.
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