In a matter of hours, the South Korean national team will face their sternest challenge yet in the 2022 World Cup – Brazil. The Seleção have arguably fielded their strongest squad in decades and many have tipped them to claim their 6th World Cup this year. Should the Brazilians do so, they would certainly cement their status as the best footballing nation in the world. Yet, South Korea are no walkover, and Uruguay and Portugal have learned that this World Cup. But despite their group-stage heroics, most fans are wondering the same thing – does South Korea have what it takes to beat Brazil?
Thankfully, the current crop of South Korean stalwarts can look to the past to draw some inspiration. In March 1999, South Korea squared up with Brazil for a friendly game. Despite the technical prowess of Brazilian legends like Rivaldo, Cafu and Zé Roberto, Korea managed to emerge 1-0 victors thanks to a 90th-minute strike by Korean Icon and former Lion City Sailors Head Coach Kim Do Hoon. It was a historic victory for the throngs of fans in attendance and the Korean players who took the field.
One Korean player who started that game and marshalled the defence was none other than Lee Lim-Saeng, someone who is no stranger to the Singaporean football fraternity. The former Home United and Suwon Samsung Bluewings head coach was part of the South Korean team that fateful night.
For those unaware, Lee is currently in Qatar as part of the Korean Football Association’s (KFA) Technical Study Group (TSG) for the World Cup. As per his TSG role, Lee is responsible for understanding the new benchmark in global football trends so that he can provide optimal suggestions to the KFA for improving Korean football. Thanks to our partners Rookbook Sports, I had the privilege to interview Lee on his thoughts on the upcoming game and the lessons learned during that fixture in 1999.
Safe to say, it was as much a tall order in 1999 as it is now.
“The Brazilian players in the past as well as now possess relatively superior individual technical abilities than other teams,” shares Lee. “Against the team in 1999, preparation was the name of the game. We worked hard to fully internalize the strategy and tactics before the game. During the game, played with a winning mentality where we were giving our 110% commitment in all actions. Defensively, we tried to minimize the space afforded to the Brazilians so that they had limited time to showcase their technical abilities. Once we regained the ball, we initiated a quick transition, something we practised hard in training, and it was such a movement that ultimately led to the winning goal.”
As Lee admits, there were different circumstances 23 years ago as opposed to the imminent World Cup Round of 16 ties. After all, it was a friendly game and the Seleção did not field their strongest line-up possible back then. Nevertheless, Lee sincerely believes that South Korea can overcome the odds.
“The current crop of Korean players should take inspiration not only from our historic win but their victory against Portugal, where they exemplified an excellent winning mentality and commitment to the game,” explains Lee. “I do hope the players take heart in how Asian sides have performed thus far in the tournament. Three nations including Korea have reached the World Cup knockout stages this time round with Australia beating European heavyweight Denmark and Japan beating former World Cup winners Spain and Germany. While eliminated, Iran managed to beat Wales and Saudi Arabia defied all odds and beat Argentina. If the Korean players take away valuable lessons from these incredible feats as well as their own, another historic win is possible”
Of course, some have labelled these victories as flukes, including South Korea’s “shock” win over a Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal. However, others attribute these wins to the vast number of Asian players plying their trade in Europe, which has seemingly provided some much-needed high-level exposure that is now translating into greater confidence levels.
In the case of Korea, Lee believes that the ever-improving standards of the domestic K-League as well as the experience gained by players based in Europe have moulded the tough mentality of the squad, a key reason for South Korea’s remarkable performances in Qatar.
“Even when the Korean players are facing stronger opponents, their morale is not affected negatively,” mentions Lee. “They do not fear the [arduous] challenge they are facing. We see this with how they play with high pressure against stronger sides to limit the space and time allowed to showcase the opposition’s technical skills. Disrupting the opponent’s game plan is important and South Korea needs to dig deep again to replicate this against Brazil.”
Many believe that this World Cup has signalled that Asian football is on the rise. It is natural to assume that Asian sides should undoubtedly take a page from the exploits of the AFC contingent on the ongoing World Cup. However, as Lee points out, it is important that countries adapt and develop their own identity while rectifying the issues that have kept them behind the rest of the pack.
“Every national team needs to have its own unique style and playing philosophy,” suggests Lee. “There is still room for improvement for Asian sides, especially our overall finishing ability. All of us need to do our homework and work on our weaknesses while stamping our own brand of football. We should never stop learning and adapting.”
In a matter of hours, Korea and Brazil take to the battlefield and draw swords. The World Cup is an arena filled with thrills and spills. As Lee aptly puts it, “this is football. The ball is round and nothing is impossible.”
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