The 2002 World Cup was obviously a special time for South Korea. To get to the last four not only sent a nation wild with delight, it remains the best ever showing by an Asian nation by some distance.
It still casts a shadow – albeit a warm and pleasant one – over the national football scene. Understandably, some can’t let go especially when the present and the immediate future does not give much encouragement.
As South Korea drew 0-0 in Uzbekistan on September 5, it was enough to qualify for a ninth successive World Cup but the Road to Russia was as painful as a morning after a night on the popular local spirit of soju.
Just 15 points came from the ten games in Group A. Just two of those came away from home. As the players celebrated on the pitch in Tashkent there were some articles being written back in Seoul that they had little right to do so after the underwhelming performances over the past 12 months.
The results and the displays meant that Uli Stielike, correctly, lost his job with two games to go. Shin was given the job until the World Cup dream ended whether it ended during qualification, the play-offs or the tournament itself. He produced two 0-0 draws that were just enough to see Korea limp over the line.
Stielike was uninspiring.
Shin not only has to prepare the team for Russia, he has to try and do something much more difficult: restore it to something approaching its former glory. That is not just in terms of results but standing in Asia and affection at home.
The Taeguk Warriors used to be loved by the whole nation. That is not really the case any more. Put it down to results, the often short-sighted actions of officials at the Korea Football Association or just a sign of the times in modern society –a lengthy debate can be had – but the national team has slipped out of Korean affections to a considerable extent.
Understandable then that 2002 marks the high point of the relationship. It is recent enough for most to remember but now just getting far enough away for nostalgia to creep in.
Nobody who was around Gangnam station in southern Seoul back in July 2002 when the team took a bus tour around the wide streets will ever forget the feeling of euphoria, delight and sheer happiness that rolled down from the skyscrapers and into every BBQ house, bar and office. The biggest cheers were reserved for Guus Hiddink.
The venerable coach is venerated for taking the Taeguk Warriors to the semi-finals during that heady summer. Like any good sitcom or TV drama director, the Dutchman left the fans wanting more. As soon as it was over, he was gone to many different pastures new.
Like Hiddink himself, the team’s fortunes have been up and down since yet qualification for the World Cup has become more fraught with each four year period. And here we are.
The big topic in Seoul now is not about the World Cup or preparations but whether Hiddink should return. That’s right – 15 years on and there are calls for him to come ‘home’ (he is an honorary citizen after all).
Holding out for a hero?
Just a few days after Korea clinched a place in Russia, Hiddink was talking to media in Amsterdam about how he would be happy to head back to Seoul to help the team. Most of his talk was about how he would love the chance to help Korea out in an advisory role or even, he hinted, as something else.
That has prompted much talk back east about what should be done, especially as it turns out, the KFA was told in June that Hiddink was interested.
Yet without getting into detail of who said and did what, Hiddink and Korea is a relationship that was beautiful in the past. They’ll always have Incheon, Daejeon and Gwangju to look back on fondly. Bringing the 70-year old back would only spoil those memories.
Whether Hiddink wants to be coach or advisor, it is time to look forward. The Korea FA, a body oft-tempted to go foreign with the World Cup just around the corner, should back Shin, the man who they gave the job to in June –for better or worse—and tell Hiddink thanks but no thanks.
He has said that he will journey to Moscow when South Korea plays a friendly there in October. It’s no problem to catch up with old friends but this is unlikely to make Shin feel comfortable or secure.
Guus Hiddink will forever have a special place in the hearts of all Koreans but it is time for both parties to move on.