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South Korea eye 2002 World Cup encore

South Korea eye 2002 World Cup encore

South Korea were the toast of the 2002 World Cup as the co-hosts reached the semi-finals.

Seoul: South Korea were the toast of the 2002 World Cup as co-hosts reaching the semi-finals and finishing fourth overall. The Asian powerhouse is now out to recapture that magic at South Africa 2010.

South Korea have reached the World Cup more often than any other Asian side. This will be their eighth appearance and seventh in a row since 1986.

The Koreans failed to get out of the first round in each of their first six showings, four times gaining one point or less. The breakthrough came in 2002 when, as co-hosts, the Taeguk Warriors rode the wave of enthusiasm all the way to the semis - including victories against Italy, Portugal and Spain before losing to Germany 1-0 in the final four.

While fourth place was something of a miracle in 2002, the Asiansare now confident of a spot in the quarter-finals in South Africa. In 2002, coach Guus Hiddink had mainly home-based players available.

But current Korean coach Huh Jung Moo has a globalised squad to choose from, including European-based stars like Manchester United winger Park Ji Sung, Bolton Wanderers midfielder Lee Chung Yong and Monaco striker Park Chu Young not to mention left back Lee Young Pyo, who played at PSV Eindhoven, Tottenham Hotspur and Borussia Dortmund before moving to Saudi side Al-Hilal.

That group however failed to get out of the first round at Germany 2006, finishing third behind Switzerland and France with four points. Huh's men this time are confident of making it out of the group stage - despite having been drawn into Group B with two-time champions Argentina as well as Nigeria and 2004 European champions Greece.

"There will be no easy teams at the World Cup. I can't say we're pleased with the draw, but we accept it. It's difficult to rate our chances, but we can get wins against Greece and Nigeria. We have to qualify for the second round - that's our objective for this World Cup," Lee Young Pyo told the FIFA website recently.

While former Fulham and Reading star Seol Ki Hyeon will miss the finals after a knee operation, back in the hunt for Huh is the 2002 World Cup hero Ahn Jung Hwan, who has transformed himself into an attacking midfielder since his header finished off Italy eight years ago.

A major difference to South Korean teams of the recent past can be seen on the sideline. After Hiddink left, the Dutchman was replaced by Portuguese Humberto Coelho, who was followed by the Dutch trio of Jo Bonfrere, Dick Advocaat and Pim Verbeek.

Huh, who scored a goal against Italy at Mexico 1986 and was a fitness trainer and assistant coach at Italy 1990 and USA 1994, respectively, is the first full-time Korean boss since he himself was let go in November 2000 to be replaced by Hiddink.

The team responded in kind to Huh, who guided South Korea to an undefeated qualifying campaign of 14 matches, including eight clean sheets.

THE COACH

Internationally, Huh Jung Moo is remembered as a star defensive midfielder during his three-year stint with PSV Eindhoven, scoring 15 goals in his 77 matches. He scored a goal against Italy at Mexico 1986 and was fitness trainer for South Korea at Italy 1990 and assistant coach at USA 1994.

Huh started coaching in 1991 and has not looked back, as he has managed to introduce youngsters like Lee Young Pyo and Park Ji Sung into his teams. Huh, who is often said to possess a very high tactical level because he is a master billiard player, has not shied away from dropping star players if they do not perform for him.

THE STAR

It has to be Park Ji Sung. Any Asian player who plies his trade for, arguably, the most popular club in the world, Manchester United, is bound to achieve cult-like status in South Korea. And that is exactly what 29-year-old Park Ji Sung has managed to achieve. Coached to prominence during the 2002 World Cup under Guus Hiddink, Park was rewarded with a move to PSV Eindhoven and then United, where he has impressed, paving the way for other Koreans like 21-year-old Lee Chung Yong, who now plays for Bolton in the Premier League.

first published:May 27, 2010, 17:19 IST