The new international calendar has presented the unusual prospect of Korea facing Laos this September 3, where few will expect anything but a comfortable Korean victory. In a growing policy to bring games away from the main stadiums, this match, played at Hwaseong Stadium, is likely to draw those less used to following the Taeguk Warriors in addition to the stalwarts. Drawn in Group G of qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia (Yes, qualification has already started), Korea finds itself alongside Lebanon, Kuwait, Laos and Myanmar, with the winner of each group advancing alongside the best four runners up from each group. While coach Uli Stielike’s tactics have made Korea tough to beat, the side has struggled against weaker opposition who tend to sit back more. Korea may find this group tougher than what is suggested on paper.
A departure from previous tournaments where the major nations only joined the competition once had reached its latter stages, some watchers had expected their earlier involvement to do little more than supply the cricket scores reminiscent of European qualifications, where sides such as San Marino and Gibraltar regularly get battered. With two rounds played so far, however, there have been some fantastic success stories for the minnows and a few surprises.
The tiny Pacific island of Guam can probably only dream of continuing the run that has seen it top Group D after two rounds, while perhaps even more impressive is Singapore’s successes in Group E where results include a scoreless draw against Japan at Saitama Stadium. Organizers of the new format will be hoping that a few more bloodied noses can be delivered, while still keeping their fingers crossed that none of the continental big boys crash out.
Korea has won its only test in qualification so far away to Myanmar. A 2-0 away success, behind a Lee, Jae-sung first half header and a free-kick from talisman Son, Heung-min, some might think Korea will cut lose against a side which finished bottom of its group in the developmental AFC Challenge Cup last year. A national side which has only attracted one to two thousand fans to home games, and never even entered World Cup qualifying until the 2002 tournament, the Laotians lack tangible experience at this level. Results against other regional sides haven’t been that encouraging either, with few victories scattered among heavy defeats to Indonesia and the Maldives. Its last match against a side of Korea’s level, against China under the old qualification system for the Brazil world cup ended in a 13-3 aggregate defeat.
A largely successful East Asia Championship saw a young Korean side top the four team group with a win and two draws, and although some might suggest that such a record just points to the mediocrity of the other nations – Japan only sent a development side and China and North Korea… are China and North Korea… it would be churlish not to give manager Stielike credit for bringing even regional success with a young side. Too often we hear about young players not being blooded, and a side made up completely from K-League players suggests that perhaps the league isn’t in dire straits to the extent that some doomsayers have suggested.
Few doubt that Korea won’t qualify for the next stage, with the upcoming away match against Lebanon the only game that most pundits would term even remotely challenging. However, Korea’s fixture list does give fans the opportunity to see teams they would rarely have a chance to watch, and matches against Laos and Myanmar should not only give fans that chance, but will hopefully also produce some goals along the way.
Korea plays Laos at Hwaseong Stadium on Thursday September 3 with an 8pm kick-off. Tickets can be purchased through Hana Bank