Heroes at home

Entering the semi-finals in 2002 and finishing fourth eventually is South Korea’s best ever performance in the big-ticket event.

South Korea has been the most consistent of the Asian teams, having qualified for the World Cup eight times, seven of them in succession. Following its clinical performance and a fourth-place finish in the 2002 World Cup, which it co-hosted with Japan, the nation is no longer considered a pushover.

South Korea’s early years in football were marked by trials and tribulations, most of which were a result of the political upheaval in the peninsula. After the first attempt to have the game organised under the banner of the Korea Football Association — which was formed in 1928 — came to nought, the association was dissolved following a decree by the then Governor General.

However, after the Republic of Korea was established, the KFA was reinstated in 1948. The same year it became a member of FIFA. South Korea, though, failed to qualify for the 1950 World Cup. It entered the big-ticket event for the first time in 1954, becoming only the second Asian nation after Dutch East Indies to participate in the premier tournament.

As minnows of world football, the South Koreans expectedly failed to flourish as they lost meekly to Hungary (9-0) and Turkey (7-0) in their first two matches in Switzerland. The results also led to the cancellation of the third match against West Germany in accordance with the then prevalent tournament rules.

In 1958, South Korea was denied entry by FIFA and in 1962, the nation failed to qualify. Four years later, South Korea did not enter the race and for the next four editions of the tournament, it failed to qualify. So, having waited for a long period, South Korea qualified for the World Cup in 1986.

In the high altitude of Mexico, South Korea once again failed to impress — it failed to win a game, losing 3-1 to Argentina, drawing 1-1 with Bulgaria and suffering a 3-2 defeat at the hands of Italy. A similar fate awaited the nation in 1990 (Italy) too, as South Korea suffered defeats against Spain (3-1), Uruguay (1-0) and Belgium (2-0) in the group stage.

In the 1994 World Cup in the United States of America, the Taegeuk Warriors performed marginally better, drawing with Spain (2-2) and Bolivia (0-0) before making their exit with a 3-2 defeat to Germany.

In 1998, South Korea once again fared badly, failing to get past the first round where it lost to Mexico (3-1) and the Netherlands (5-0) before salvaging some pride with a 1-1 draw against Belgium.

The nation made amends in the next edition as South Korea, under the guidance of the Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink, stunned its fans. Having waltzed its way through the initial round at the expense of Poland, United States and Portugal, the home team kept its frenzied fans engaged as it took Italy and Spain in its stride in the next two rounds to become the first Asian team to enter the last four stage of a World Cup.

South Korea’s great run, however, came to an end following its 1-0 defeat to Germany in the semi-finals. It then had to settle for the fourth place after being defeated by Turkey 3-2 in the match between the losing semi-finalists. Nevertheless, Hiddink, skipper Hong Myung-Bo and the key players, Park Ji-Sung, Ahn Jung-Hwan and Seol Ki-Hyeon, all became national heroes.

South Korea was unable to match its performance of 2002 in the next edition in Germany, as it was eliminated in the first round itself. The team, however, celebrated its first ever World Cup win on foreign soil following the 2-1 win over Togo.

In 2010 (South Africa), South Korea did gain respect by marching into the second round — the first time it did so away from home — before being brought down by Uruguay (2-1) in the knockout stage.

* * * 'Three-lung park

A player who showed indefatigable spirit in the midfield while shoring up the fortunes of his team - club or country - Park Ji-Sung (in pic) is regarded as one who opened the doors to the rich European leagues for his countrymen.

Born on February 25, 1981, the boy from the small town of Goheung first displayed his precocious talent while playing for Myjongi University. He made his first international appearance for South Korea in 2001 and was soon signed up by Kyoto Purple Sanga of Japan.

Park's stocks soared at the 2002 World Cup as he scored the winner in a thrilling 1-0 victory against Portugal that took the host nation to the second round of the championship for the first time. Later, South Korea's Dutch coach Guus Hiddink helped Park move to PSV Eindhoven. Though he started slowly, Park was instrumental in Eindhoven winning a couple of Dutch League titles during his four-year association with the club.

His superb all-round display caught the attention of the legendary Alex Ferguson and he joined Manchester United in 2005. After a slow start, Park gained the respect of the United fans as he played a pivotal role in helping the club win three consecutive Premier League titles and four overall in a span of five years. In addition, in May 2009, the nippy midfielder became the first Asian to figure in the Champions League and lift the prestigious trophy with Manchester United, for which he earned fulsome praise from the fans, who dubbed him "Three-Lung Park" for his renowned fitness.

In 2010, Park became the first Asian player to score in three straight World Cup finals. The following year, after earning his 100th cap for his country, Park announced his retirement from international play.