Team: South Korea
Nickname: The Taeguk Warriors
Schedule: June 17 vs. Russia, June 22 vs. Algeria, June 26 vs. Belgium
World Cup History: Semifinals (2002), Round of 16 (2010)
Rankings: FIFA (55), Elo (42)
Winning Odds: 250-1
South Korea reached the World Cup Semifinals at home in 2002. They returned to the knockout round in 2010. Their 2014 campaign will be about making this a regular thing.
Qualifying Form: The South Koreans finished second in AFC Qualifying Group A. They edged Uzbekistan for the automatic trip to Brazil by +1 goal difference. This poor effort led to their coach Choi Kang-Hee resigning last summer.
Coach: Hong Myung-Bo. He’s one of the best Asian players of all-time. Hong was star defender for South Korea from 1990-2002. As captain in 2002, he led the team to the semifinals and was awarded the Bronze Ball. This is his first true head coaching position, though he coached South Korea to a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics.
Tactics: Hong has kept to a 4-2-3-1 with a full-strength squad since taking over. South Korean teams tend to get the most out of their quality through tactical discipline and a high work rate. They will try to defend and then counterattack with pace.
Player to Watch: Son Heung-Min. He’s a 21-year-old attacking midfielder for Bayer Leverkusen. He combines work rate, with pace and skill. He uses both feet. He can play anywhere in the attacking third. Son scored 12 goals in 43 total appearances for his German club, as they qualified for the Champions League.
Current Squad: This is a young team. Defender Kwak Tae-Hwi was the only player above 30 called up to even the 30-man preliminary group. Essentially, half the squad is spread about the Asian leagues. The other half is young and has not really caught on in Europe.
South Korea’s strength is attacking midfield, with Son and Bolton’s Lee Chung-Yong on the wings. One weakness is at striker. Projected starter Park Chu-Young has basically not played since arriving at Arsenal in 2011. Another is defense, with questions in midfield, all along the back four and at goalkeeper. They struggled defending set pieces during qualifying.
Group Outlook: The South Koreans have reached the knockout stages at two of the past three World Cups. That’s two more times than the other three group members combined over that span. Even the Belgians offer a fair bit of uncertainty, heading to Brazil. South Korea can beat any team in this group. They can lose to any team in this group. Odds don’t favor advancement, but it’s not inconceivable.
Arbitrary South Korean Power Rankings: Ban Ki-Moon, Kim Yu-Na, Sun Myung-Moon, Shin Soo-Choo, Lee Byung-hun