Does South Korea stand a chance in the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil?

With the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil off to a sizzling start, expats in Korea might be interested in how the South Korean national team is going to fare.  We got soccer fanatic Josh Sokolow to give us his opinion.

Josh Sokolow

An avid traveler and soccer fan, Josh is currently in Brazil watching the world cup. Lucky guy. 

The largest sporting event in the world kicked off in Sao Paolo on Thursday, and will run a full month before wrapping up with the final game in Rio de Janeiro.  Is there a chance of South Korea being in it? After all, they made it to the semi-finals on home ground back in 2002, and have been one of the most-competitive Asian teams ever since. Could they be a real contender?

In short, no.

Unlike 12 years ago, when Korea and Japan shared the hosting duties, Korea won’t have home field advantage. Besides the fact that no non-South American team has ever won a tournament held in South America (of the four world cups held there, 6 finalists have been South American, two European, and the Europeans have never won), this particular world cup is already controversial for the extreme conditions players are facing. While this may give the disciplined South Korean team a slight nudge over their European counterparts, it really just sets the South Americans even further ahead.

Even worse than that, this edition of the South Korean national team is coming off one of the most underwhelming qualifying campaigns in recent memory. After losing to Iran in Ulsan, they qualified by virtue of a Qatari upset over Uzbekistan. That Iranian game was particularly notable for the crowd’s reaction to Korea’s loss: The crowd, awaiting the results of the Uzbekistan-Qatar game, and understandably roiled at their team’s loss, less understandably took out their anger by raining empty soju bottles, beer cans, chopsticks, and chicken bones down on the celebrating Iranian team below. Unsurprisingly, FIFA decided to take no action against Korea for this disgraceful show.

(Check out this video for John Oliver’s hilarious take on FIFA hypocrisy -ed)

Korea qualified.  So what? Well, that game was pretty indicative of their journey as a whole.  It was categorized by a lot of possession and cute passes, sloppy defending, a dearth of creativity and imagination, and dreadful finishing. South Korea will struggle at the World Cup because they just can’t score: In the past 5 games they’ve scored just 4 goals.

So what’s the problem? It’s not as if they don’t have the firepower: Plenty of Korean players are in big European leagues performing against the same caliber of player being showcased in Brazil. The problem lies in their playing style. Korean players tend to be great at knocking the ball around and running for days; they can make silky-smooth short passes and hold onto possession in the midfield with no problem, but they don’t seem to commit to the hard tackles, or take a chance on a breath-taking goal. It’s that lack of flair, especially going forward, that will hamper them in South America, where conditions favor impassioned, South American style

So what do they have going for them? Well, progressing in the 32-team tournament doesn’t necessarily require technical wizardry or phenomenal goal-scoring: All you need is a very good offense or a very good defense. For Korea, the latter may come in the form of coach Hong Myung-Bo. He was a national hero in 2002 as team captain, and led a rugged, “never say die” defense, learning his trade under legendary coach Guus Hiddink.


World Cup Group H

Korea’s group, Group H, has been branded as an easier group, partially because they’re in it.  According to FIFA the men from Korea are ranked 54 in the world.  Their opponents, Belgium (12), Russia (18) and Algeria (25), are all much stronger on paper.  Group H does seem to have shorter travel times and less dramatic weather changes, but it’s unclear whether that will be a major factor. 

Here are the details of Korea’s three group games, together with the time (in KST) and location of each.

Game 1: Russia (7:00AM, June 18th, in Cuiaba)

This game is set in the tropical city of Cuiaba, on the border with Bolivia.  It’s hot and humid there, which should favor the South Koreans.  Expect temperatures to be hovering around the upper 80s and making life uncomfortable for the Russians.

The Russians are poised to be the dark horse of this World Cup , but if they have a slow start and South Korea manage a draw then they could very well make it through the group stage.  Korea will play a very defensive, tactical game and try to craft a few chances, but their lack of a goal threat will really hurt them.

My prediction: 2-1 to the Russians.

Game 2: Algeria (4:00AM, June 23rd, in Porto Alegre)

Five days after their opening match, South Korea heads to Porto Alegre, a city located in southern Brazil.  Temperatures will be lower than in their first match, but may still favor the Koreans.  South Korea have a better pedigree in international tournaments, and this will help their team deal with the pressures of coming into this game with 0 points in the bank, but Algeria will try to frustrate the Koreans, creating a game similar to that home qualifier in Ulsan against Iran. Korea will have a lot of the ball, create a lot of chances, and give up only a few counter attacks.

My Prediction: On the night, Korea will be more clinical than the higher-ranked Algerians and win the match 2-0.

Game 3: Belgium (5:00 AM, June 27th, in Sao Paulo)

If Korea manages a draw with Russia, they’ll have set themselves up for a fantastic final match in the group stages against Belgium, where they’ll probably be battling for a good goal differential.

The temperature at Sao Paulo’s Arena Corinthians will be a non-factor.  The Belgians should come into this match with the maximum 6 points and, with a safe passage to the knock-out phase, they won’t be taking any risks. They’ll set up with a weaker team, benching players on yellow cards and resting their stars. That said, the Belgian team is extremely talented, and it could be argued that their B team is better than Korea’s best.

Korea will come into this game needing a result to get to the next round.  They’re a disciplined team, but they’re also not a team that looks great going forward, so any result for them would be a victory.

My Prediction: Eden Hazard and Co. will dispatch of Hong Myung-Bo’s boys 3-0, and with that Korea’s World Cup dream ends.

Final Results: South Korea have 3 points after the group stage, with a goal differential of -2

[note title=”Aternately…”]If Korea does manage that draw with Russia (which could very well happen), and then beat Algeria by a goal or two, they’ll go into the game against Belgium very differently. They’ll play cautiously and still lose, but with 4 points they’ll still make it to the next round as they’ll better the Russians’ goal differential.  The Russians will take the brunt of Belgium’s force and be battered by several goals. [/note]


Who to watch:

Korea does have a few players to watch, and for all the talk of Korea not being able to score, they do have a goal scorer in their ranks: Son Heung-Min.

He currently plies his trade in Germany with Bayern Leverkusan, and could be one of the breakout players of the tournament. There has been talk of his being involved with a big money transfer after the World Cup, and if he has a good tournament then his stock will only continue to rise.

Korea also has a few players that play in the English Premier League.  Kim Bo-Kyung and Ki Sung-Yung play for Cardiff City and Sunderland respectively, and their experience at such a high level well certainly be beneficial in holding down the Korean midfield. 


Key matches

Here are the details of key matches you might be interested in (all times KST):

South Korea:

  1. South Korea vs Russia – June 18th @ 7 AM
  2. South Korea vs Algeria – June 23rd @ 4 AM
  3. South Korea vs Belgium – June 27th @ 5 AM


  1. England vs Italy – June 15th @ 6 AM
  2. England vs Uruguay – June 20th @ 4 AM
  3. England vs Costa Rica – June 25th @ 1 AM


  1. USA vs Ghana – June 17th @ 7 AM
  2. USA vs Portugal – June 23rd @ 6 AM
  3. USA vs Germany – June 27th @ 1 AM

Other big games:

  • Brazil vs Croatia – June 13th @ 5 AM
  • Spain vs The Netherlands – June 14th @ 4 AM
  • Germany vs Portugal – June 17th @ 1 AM
  • Brazil vs Mexico – June 18th @ 4 AM
  • Switzerland vs France – June 21st @ 4 AM
  • Italy vs Uruguay – June 25th @ 1 AM