Hiddink's winter of discontent
South Korea finished fourth at the 2002 World Cup as a nation turned red with excitement, yet just five months earlier, the team managed the same position at the 2002 CONCACAF Gold Cup while the country turned pink with embarrassment. In June, the Taeguk Warriors defeated Poland, Portugal, Italy and Spain on their way to the semi-final; in January, they lost to the United States, Costa Rica and Canada while drawing with Cuba and Mexico. In June, Guus Hiddink was a hero; but in January, he almost lost his job.
CONCACAF has often invited outsiders to its biennial continental meet and ten years ago Korea were understandably keen for some competitive action as a co-host of the upcoming World Cup. Getting on the guest list was a good move, or so it seemed at the time.
The mood in the camp was tense with less than five months before the big kick-off but there was also a determination to put the previous summer behind them. The 2001 Confederations Cup in June started with a demoralising 5-0 defeat at the hands of world champions France and while Korea recovered to defeat Australia and Mexico, goal difference meant a group stage exit. With Japan progressing to the final in Yokohama, it provided a preview of a movie nobody wanted to see. No host had ever failed to make it past the first round at the World Cup. Both Japan and Korea were worried about becoming an unfortunate first and, if that wasn't bad enough, the possibility of their bitterest rival continuing onwards.
Such worries grew after thanks to another 5-0 thrashing in the Czech Republic on August 15 - Independence Day in South Korea and one that had domestic coaches publicly wondering if the national team should not be free from foreign intervention.
So the 12-nation Gold Cup, a competition that would usually receive no coverage whatsoever in the Asian media, became a big deal. Competitive football, a tournament format and the temperate climes of southern California were a welcome contrast to the sub-zero temperatures of southern Korea. Indeed, with the opposition generally regarded as weak, there were hopes that the team could pick up a few morale-boosting wins on foreign soil.
The opening match was in Pasadena against the hosts. This was a second meeting with the United States in barely a month. The first was won by Korea and came just days after the December draw had placed both teams in the same World Cup group leading to talk of physiological advantages. It ended 2-1 to the hosts, thanks to a last-minute goal from Damarcus Beasley. It was not a bad performance from the visitors who enjoyed a healthy share of possession and made chances, but were unable to make them count.
It was to be a recurring theme of a tournament which was about to take a turn for the worse. The following game was much more dispiriting - a goalless draw against Cuba. The team from the peninsula peppered the islanders' goal but found no way through thanks to poor finishing and the goalkeeping of Odelin Molina.
There was then good news and bad news. The format - with two of the three teams in each group progressing to the quarter-finals - meant that Korea squeezed through. The bad news was that if the team couldn't score against Cuba with strikers such as Hwang Sun-hong and Choi Yong-soo, then the departure of these two, as well as Yoo Sang-chul back to their Japanese clubs did not bode well for the rest of the tournament.
At least young midfielder Park Ji-sung, just 20, was cementing his place in the line-up. The future Manchester United star caught the eye in the first 180 minutes of the competition, going close against the United States and combining well with another young emerging talent, Lee Chun-soo. Lee, though, was soon on his way home with a knee problem.
Next came Mexico, always tough in southern California. As it turned out, it was the team's only win in the tournament. It came via a penalty shootout after a goalless 120 minutes in the LA rain and was ended by Lee Young-pyo's unstoppable spot-kick into the top corner. It was a fine way to end the best performance of the month; Korea looked fitter and more fluid than the opposition but still could not find the net.
Hiddink wasn't there to personally pick out the penalty takers. The Dutchman was sent to the stands deep into extra-time for kicking the ball on to the field, to call attention he said, to a prone Lee Eul-yong who was lying on the floor as flat as the Korean attack after an alleged punch. "I did that on purpose," Hiddink said afterwards. "I think the organisation of this tournament and the judgment of referees are fail marks."
On purpose, or not, there was no denying the Dutchman's frustration at his team's inability to find the net –long an issue for Asian teams and a major reason why the Korean Football Association had looked overseas in the first place and appointed him in December 2000. "It is the biggest problem that I've seen in our team to this point," Hiddink admitted. "Creating only five clear chances in an international game is good enough, but it's also somewhat worrying to me that we aren't taking the goals from those chances we create. I can't be the one to score them - I'm too old."
He did seem to have a few extra grey hairs but somehow, Korea were in the semi-finals. If the team could get to the last four while struggling to score, then if the strikers could find their shooting boots an unlikely but very welcome title was within reach.
Korea did score in the semi-final but were second best to a Paulo Wanchope-inspired Costa Rica and lost 3-1. Worse was to come in the third place play-off as Korea lost 2-1 to Canada with Kim Do-hoon putting the team ahead and then equalising for the Canucks with an own goal before Dwayne De Rosario's winner a minute later. It was a turgid and unimaginative performance.
Already uneasy about results under Hiddink, fans back home watched with growing horror as Korea struggled once more against an opponent expected to be overcome with relative ease. Not surprisingly, the Dutchman's job became the cause of speculation. Sports Chosun, a leading newspaper, claimed that the KFA was contemplating a change in coach just four months before the World Cup. "'These reports are groundless," said KFA General Secretary Ka Sam-hyeon, but there were genuine worries that if Korea couldn't beat the likes of Canada and Cuba, then how was it going to fare against the big boys with the whole world watching?
Park Jong-hwan, a former national team coach, publicly accused the association of having too much trust in the Dutchman and claimed that, in over a year in the job, he was still ignorant of Korean football. Park was also critical, as were many others of Hiddink taking his girlfriend to the United States, however in little under six months he had won them all around.
What happened next? With all the criticism at home, Hiddink and the players may have been relieved to continue on their overseas travels for a while. After the LA loss to Canada, the team headed to Uruguay to lose 2-1 but then embarked on a seven-game unbeaten run that included wins over Costa Rica and Finland before a memorable 4-1 thrashing of Scotland shortly before the World Cup. There was also a hard-fought draw with England as Park Ji-sung cancelled out Michael Owen's opener and the run was only ended with an exciting 3-2 defeat by France, much closer than the 5-0 humiliation of a year earlier. By the time the tournament arrived, there was a sense of excitement in the air in the Land of the Morning Calm.
There was soon much more besides as Korea picked up a first ever World cup win over Poland, topped their group by beating Portugal, knocked out Italy in the Second Round thanks to a dramatic golden-goal winner from Ahn Jung-hwan and then beat Spain in a penalty shootout to book a semi-final against Germany which was lost 1-0. The events of January were soon forgotten by the public, although perhaps not inside the KFA where the oft-criticised association could have been forgiven for patting itself on the back for standing by their man.