[Newsmaker] After long, bumpy road, S. Korea qualifies for 2018 World Cup

By Yonhap

Published : Sep 6, 2017 - 16:34
Updated : Sep 6, 2017 - 16:57

It has been a long and bumpy road, but South Korea on Tuesday realized its dream of making it to their ninth consecutive World Cup finals here.  

The men's national soccer team secured a spot at the 2018 FIFA World Cup after clinching the second place in Group A in the final Asian qualifying round with a scoreless draw with Uzbekistan.

In the Asian Football Confederation, the top two teams from Group A and B in the final round directly advance to the World Cup, while two third-placed teams need to go through playoff rounds to clinch a spot at the soccer’s showpiece event. South Korea was in Group A with Iran, Uzbekistan, Syria, Qatar and China.

South Korean players throw their head coach Shin Tae-yong in the air in celebration after qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup following a scoreless draw against Uzbekistan at Bunyodkor Stdium in Tashkent on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

With Iran already determined as the group winners after just eight matches, South Korea was in a dogfight to take the last automatic qualification spot. Heading into the last match in the final round, South Korea was hanging on to second place with 14 points, just two points above Syria and Uzbekistan.

South Korea's initial hope was to confirm a World Cup spot by beating Uzbekistan. It was instead held by Uzbekistan, but the Taeguk Warriors were fortunate to advance to the World Cup after Syria and Iran played to a 2-2 draw.

The road to Russia wasn’t all that pretty to South Korea. It involved a series of nail-biting moments, fans‘ outcry and even a coaching change before Tuesday’s result saved South Korean football from despair.

South Korea's quest to the 2018 World Cup started with the appointment of Uli Stielike in the fall of 2014. After suffering a group stage exit at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with one draw and two losses, South Korea hired the 62-year-old German in September 2014 with a mission of leading the national team to the 2018 World Cup. 

After taking a runner-up finish at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in January, Stielike’s team began the second round of the Asian World Cup qualification against Lebanon, Kuwait, Laos and Myanmar.

South Korea was one of the 34 AFC members that had a bye through the first qualifying round based on their FIFA rankings.

South Korea was perfect in the second round from June 2015 to March 2016, as it reeled off eight straight wins -- including a 3-0 win by forfeit over Kuwait -- while scoring 27 goals and giving up none. During that period, South Korea was unstoppable as it also claimed the EAFF East Asian Cup, featuring Japan, North Korea and China. 

However, things took a different turn in the final round, which began in September 2016. 

South Korea started with a 3-2 win in Seoul over China and a scoreless draw against Syria. Stielike‘s side managed to get a 3-2 win against Qatar at home in October 2016, but concerns were rising after it fell to Iran 1-0 in Tehran with a hapless performance.

By that time, local fans started to question Stielike’s ability, with some calling for his head. Stielike earned a bit of breathing room when South Korea defeated Uzbekistan 2-1 at home in November 2016. But South Korea's performance still couldn’t meet the fans' expectations -- all of their victories were decided by just one goal, and they were scoreless away from home.

At the halfway point of the final round, South Korea had 10 points with three wins, one draw and one loss. It was just one point behind the group leaders Iran with three wins and two draws, and one point above third-placed Uzbekistan with three wins and two losses.

South Korea kicked off 2017 with hopes of playing more inspired soccer, but there was no sign of improvement. The team first suffered a stunning 1-0 loss to China on the road in March, which was its first loss to the Asian neighbors since 2010. Despite the defeat, South Korea was fortunate to stay in second place as Uzbekistan also picked up an unexpected loss against Syria on the same day.

South Korea later beat Syria 1-0 at home, but the score wasn’t enough to placate angry fans who demanded the Korea Football Association sack Stielike. (Yonhap)


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