Football Team Faces Elimination
By Kim Tong-hyung
After enduring a 3-0 spanking by the mighty Italians, the beleaguered South Koreans are desperate to regain some of their dignity against fellow Group D doormats Honduras Wednesday night.
At stake will be South Korea's dying hopes for its first Olympic football medal, as well as its survival as a serious football nation.
South Korea, which drew with Cameroon in its Group D opener, is placed third behind the European and African powerhouses and will need a convincing drubbing of Honduras to have any chance of advancing to the knockout rounds.
However, Cameroon defeating or tying the Italians in their group phase finale would render irrelevant any Korean attempt.
Even if the Italians beat Cameroon, although the reigning world champions wouldn't be willing too much when they already have their place booked, Cameroon's massive four-point lead over Korea in goal difference would be extremely difficult to overcome.
In other words, hope may only exist as a theory for Korean manager Park Sung-hwa's side, which could be packing its boots back to Seoul by the end of the week. It's hard to imagine the cautious and timid Koreans routing the under-performing but feisty South Americans when their relationship with the goal has so far been platonic.
``Regardless of a win in our next game or not, we have lost the opportunity to determine our fate with our own hands," said Park, who took over the coaching helm of the under-23 team in August of last year but may not survive what is shaping up as a cruel summer of 2008.
``The players showed great effort, but I have to admit I chose the wrong strategy (against Italy)," he said. ``We will fight to our last breath against Honduras and take what we are given.''
The performance of Park's side in Beijing had drawn particular attention because the players are likely to provide the core of the squad that would be sent to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa should the country qualify.
However, the recent play of the team hardly inspires any confidence.
After displaying impressive energy against Cameroon, the Koreans returned Sunday to their brand of nondescript football of the qualifying phase that was probably intended to bore the Italians into submission.
Park had built his team around a 4-4-2 formation, emphasizing pace on the wings and execution on the counterattack, but the fear of the mighty Azzurri had him switch to a safety-first 4-5-1.
However, this only seemed to put the Koreans out of their element as they looked clueless and indifferent on the pitch, while first-half strikes by Giuseppe Rossi and Tommaso Rocchi made a mockery of their scheme.
With Park replacing target man Shin Young-rok with winger Lee Chung-yong in the second-half and introducing a two-man front with Park Chu-young and Lee Keun-ho, the Koreans played with better rhythm on the offensive end after the whistle.
However, the Koreans looked discouraged after failing to convert on their few scoring opportunities and had their collective will broken by a late strike by Riccardo Montolivo.
Park can't manage to send his players out to defend against Honduras, when he knows a 1-0 victory could very much be a wasted attempt. It is somewhat of a relief that Honduras will be suiting a compromised lineup against the Koreans, with team captain Hendry Thomas and starting goalkeeper Kevin Hernandez suspended from the game due to bookings. Attacker Carlos Pavon is also expected to sit out due to an injury.
Shin, whose strength in the air and direct approach to the goal make him a rare main-striker type on the Korean team, conforms as an ideal partner for Keun-ho in the frontline, with Chu-young playing behind them as a distributor or sliding to the left flank.
Kim Jung-woo and Paek Ji-hoon look as a solid combo in the center midfield, although Park's religious attachment to Chung-yong and Ki Sung-yueng may result in an unorthodox midfield unit.
The solid displays of wingbacks Kim Dong-jin and Shin Kwang-hoon have been a revelation, but Park is concerned that his center-back axis of Kang Min-soo and Kim Jin-kyu continues to get exposed as erratic and slow-footed.