2018 Russia World Cup, a Story after Pyeongchang

Shin Tae-Yong

As the summer starts to heat up in Korea, memories of the PyeongChang Games begin to fade away. Such is the nature of sports fans. Rather than bask in the glory of Yun Sung-bin’s astounding gold medal or reminisce over the “Garlic Girls” meteoric rise to stardom, spectators search for the next big event on the calendar and a new hero to get behind. 

June will provide this opportunity as it sees the start of the Men’s FIFA World Cup, which will take place in Russia. The South Korean national soccer team will need to take a huge chunk of inspiration from the likes of Yun Sung-bin if they are to make it out of the first round since they have been drawn in Group F, also known as, “The Group of Death” with Germany, Sweden, and Mexico. 

While sports fans do tend to look forwards, they also never forget. To mention the World Cup in Korea automatically stirs up conversation about the tournament that was hosted jointly by Korea and Japan in 2002. Of course, not only did that event successfully thrust the nation onto the global stage, but it produced a truly inspiring story under the leadership of Guus Hiddink. That team, unfortunately, fell short when it lost in the semi-finals to Germany. On the way to the last four, however, The Red Devils upset the odds by beating Poland, Portugal, Italy, and Spain to win the hearts and minds of the Korean people and sports fans around the world. Ironically, the 2018 edition will see Korea compete against Germany again, and attempt to avenge that loss on the way to going one step further than Hiddink’s team. Another hero from that story, Park Ji-sung, is not so optimistic. This week he claimed Korea has more than a fifty percent chance of exiting the tournament early.

On Monday, Korean manager Shin Tae-yong announced his preliminary squad, which included 28 players, and this will be whittled down to a final list of 23. The 61st ranked team in the world will be relying heavily on its power in midfield and attack that comes from the likes of English Premier League stars Son Heung-min and Ki Sung-yueng, but the manager acknowledged his team’s defensive frailties. The Taegook Warriors have been rocked by the news that regular defensive starters, Kim Min-jae and Kim Jin-su will both miss the tournament due to injury; thus, Shin is tasked with finding adequate replacements.  
The tournament itself gets underway at midnight on June 15th with the host country’s Russian squad taking on Saudi Arabia, and Asia Society Korea decided to take a closer look at the teams Korea will face in the group stage. 

Monday, 18 June (9:00pm) 
Vs. Sweden (FIFA Ranking: 23)

Korea’s opening match will take place at the newly built Nizhny Novgorod Stadium. The 45,000 seater stadium is in Nizhny, which is six hours by car to the east of Moscow. The city was Russia’s biggest manufacturer of military equipment during the Soviet period and The Reds will need to be incredibly industrious if they are to overcome the Swedes. It should be noted that many were shocked at the failure of Italy and the Netherlands to qualify for this tournament, and a major reason for this was Sweden. First, they pipped the Netherlands to second place in their qualifying group, and then they powered past Italy in a play-off to secure their place in the tournament. Korea can count themselves lucky that the world-renowned Zlatan Ibrahimović has been overlooked for selection due to a frosty relationship with Sweden’s manager Janne Andersson, but the squad is still packed with talent and includes many of the players who helped Sweden win the 2015 UEFA U21 trophy.

Sunday, 24 June (12:00am) 
Vs. Mexico (FIFA Ranking: 15)

Next up for the Taegook Warriors is a trip Rostov-on-Don, which is famous for its flamboyant Cossack culture and unique architecture. The players, though, will have little time to take this in as they will be tasked with overcoming Mexico, who only lost one game during their entire qualifying schedule. Like Sweden, the squad is loaded with talent and all eyes will be on Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, who at the tender age of 22 has managed 19 goals in his debut European club season with Dutch side PSV. 

Wednesday, 27 June (11:00pm)
Vs. Germany (FIFA Ranking: 1)

It is no disrespect to Sweden or Mexico when it is said that the best has been left to last. Korea’s final game of the group stage will take place at the Kazan Arena, a beautiful stadium perched the banks of the Kazanka River that was designed to resemble a waterlily. By this point, hopefully, Korea will have some points in the bag because the opposition will be the 2014 World Cup winners and one of the favorites to lift the trophy again this year. There are not enough superlatives to describe this team, which destroyed its opposition during qualification and arguably boasts enough depth throughout its squad to have two different starting elevens that could both go all the way to the final. While Germany’s manager Joachim Löw will have some difficult selection issues, one player sure to start will be Thomas Muller, who is only seven goals away from becoming the World Cup’s all-time leading goalscorer. 
So there we have it, three tough games against high-quality opposition. It will be up to the squad as a whole to pull together and put some points on the board early, so they can squeeze into one of the top two qualifying places. If the Korean side is able to achieve that, they would be on their way to cementing their place in the memories of fans around the country, just like Hiddink’s team of 2002.