Korea frets of poor form heading to World Cup

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - A poor American tour has South Korea football fans worried about the team’s prospects in this year’s World Cup, even if a similarly bad tour in 2002 was followed by the nation’s best-ever World Cup finish.

In 2002, South Korea played five games in the United States, losing three and drawing two against the likes of Canada, Costa Rica and Cuba, but five months later it made the semifinals of the World Cup.

Twelve years on, fans are not optimistic about a repeat.

The recent tour started with a 1-0 win over a hapless Costa Rica but quickly turned sour, with a 4-0 defeat at the hands of Mexico in San Antonio, Texas and a 2-0 loss against the United States in Carson, California.

For coach Hong Myong-bo, the one saving grace was that the team was missing its European-based stars as well as those in action in the Middle East and China.

Hong, who took the job in July, is looking forward to the friendly against Greece in Athens next month, when he will have his overseas-based players available.

Players such as Son Heung-min of Bayer Leverkusen, Ki Sung-yeung of Sunderland, Lee Chung-yong at Bolton Wanderers and Koo Ja-cheol of Mainz are all regarded as automatic starters in the starting eleven in Group H of the World Cup against Russia, Algeria and Belgium.

Their understudies failed to impress in the United States and neither did those challenging for starting positions that are still available.

“It is true that we were not at our best but it was a good experience for us and will help us going forward” said Lee Keun-ho, who played in all three games.

“If the overseas players can do well, that will be a big boost to the team. In the meantime we will focus on the K-League and we can combine well in the summer to good effect.”

The division between overseas and domestic players has become a touchy subject in Korean football, with outgoing coach Choi Kang-hee revealing last year that the split extended to the two groups sitting separately at mealtimes.

The disappointing performances of the domestic players on the American tour will strengthen the tide of public opinion, which has turned in favor of the overseas players.

“The media has not made any analysis of the actual play and is just trying to blame the domestic players,” prominent television commentator Seo Hyung-wook told The Associated Press. “Even if team does not perform well, we cannot blame the clubs that the players play for.”

There was some good news for Hong, as he returned home on the same day that Park Chu-young made his debut for Watford in England’s second tier. The 28 year-old striker is on loan from Arsenal where he played just seven minutes of Premier League football since joining the London club in August 2011. Such inactivity cost him his place in the national team as its number one striker.

The move to a new team and the promise of regular football means it is almost certain that the former Monaco marksman will be selected to face Greece.

“I feel much relieved that he can make a fresh start,” Hong said. “Park will have to show a good performance in the coming matches.”

If the coach can persuade Park Ji-sung to return to the national team then the mood will improve overnight. In January, the 2002 captain declared he will meet his former team-mate who retired from the international game in January 2011.

Despite discouraging comments from Park’s management, Hong plans to travel to the Netherlands in February, where the former Manchester United star is playing for PSV Eindhoven.

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