Guus Hiddink, the Netherlands’ 1998 World Cup team manager, has been hired by South Korea in an attempt to end its winless drought at the tournament and get through the first round for the first time in soccer’s quadrennial tournament.
Given only 18 months to get things ready since his arrival in January 2001, Hiddink’s job with the World Cup cohost has turned out to be one continuous fight against time limits. However, the Dutchman remains optimistic, both short term as regards the World Cup and long term for the future of Korean soccer.
Speaking to The Japan Times, Hiddink noted that his players have, so far, made good progress ahead of the World Cup.
“I have a year and a half. I am not complaining about it but it’s getting tight as I have to do a lot of things which you would normally have longer to prepare for,” Hiddink said at the end of last month in Tokyo, where he attended the FIFA Team Workshop, a World Cup preparation meeting.
“But I started with a lot of pleasure and a lot of ambition. . . . So far, we’ve made nice progress. Now the final step is for well-organized play and to finish it off with some good results. That’s supposed to come around just before and certainly during the World Cup,” he said.
After taking the helm of the South Korea national team, Hiddink spent the first several months checking the potential of the Korean players and, at the same time, introducing the style of play needed to qualify for the second round of the World Cup.
Through that process, Hiddink gave unknown young players an opportunity to show their potential in some friendlies.
“I brought in young players from universities or who were rather unknown in their clubs. When they get more mature it will benefit Korean football. I coached them in the modern way of playing, and choose players equipped physically, tactically and mentally to bring a higher performance level (to the team),” he said.
The Korean media, however, is often impatient with the way Hiddink manages the team, claiming that the Korea manager should fix his team immediately and fine-tune it for the World Cup. When the team lost the impatience turned to severe criticism.
“Are they in a hurry? I’m even more in a hurry than the Korean press because I have a very short time to implement the style of play which can help us reach the second round,” Hiddink stressed, “But I have to consider the development of the players and I have chosen the tough way.”
The former PSV Eindhoven and Real Madrid boss urged the Korean Football Association to plan well for a tough campaign instead of the “easy way as they’ve done in the past.” Hiddink pointed out that such a style resulted in South Korea’s failures in previous World Cups (in 1954, ’86, ’90, ’94 and ’98).
“In the past, they chose the easy way of preparation. But once they were on the world’s stage at the World Cup, they didn’t perform well and didn’t win any games. That was a bad performance, a shy performance. Because all of a sudden they were confronted with strong opposition which they were not used to,” he said.
“So, I’ve arranged a number of tough games. We are getting more and more experience.”
In the CONCACAF Gold Cup in January, South Korea lost 2-1 to the United States; drew with Cuba 0-0; beat Mexico 4-2 on penalties after a 0-0 tie after extra time in the quarterfinals; lost to Costa Rica 3-1 in the semifinals before losing to Canada 2-1 in the third-place playoff.
Korea’s last two games before the tournament begins, will be against England on May 21 and France on May 26.
“I would have been very worried if we had been outplayed by all the opponents we have played. We had some losses but there was no one team that outplayed us. In January and February, our team was predominantly Korean-based, so I could give them experience. But some journalists don’t see the point,” Hiddink said.
“It would have been easy for me to get very cheap results by playing teams who are lower than us in the FIFA ranking. But if I had done so, that wouldn’t be a serious preparation for the World Cup and when we got to the World Cup, the players would be frightened. That’s not a good strategy. That’s a ‘fooling yourself’ strategy.
“I’m too ambitious to take the easy road. I don’t want instant success. I want success for the Korean team. I may not be there after the World Cup, but they’ve got a lot of possibilities.”
The 55-year-old manager said South Korean soccer is changing.
“I’m satisfied with the development of the players. They are getting more international experience. So far I’m very satisfied with the help of the KFA people, who think in the same way as I do. I consider (South Korea) is now a fast developing country.”
Hiddink, who guided the Netherlands to the semifinals of the 1998 World Cup, said he always tells his players the good points and bad points of their game after analyzing their performance on video tape.
The Korean players in general are known for their never-say-die, aggressive playing style. Hiddink, though, said he is trying to “exclude the emotion of the game” from his players. So that they can play with their head, not their heart, in an attempt to be competitive at international level.
The South Korea manager recently has called up veteran defender Hong Myung Bo, formerly of Bellmare Hiratsuka and Kashiwa Reysol, to his squad for the ongoing three-week European tour. Hong had been sidelined due to a leg injury.
“Hong is a well known player with a lot of experience and big status in Asia. I’m happy that he’s starting again after his severe injury. He still has to fight for his position in the team. But when he’s fit and OK, he can be a great help to the team. It’s a good development.”
Asked about the strength of the South Korean team, Hiddink replied, “The team is growing.” With less than three months left before the start of the World Cup, however, he indicated that the team needs to improve its physical strength.
“What I want to see from our players is hard work on tactics and strategy. We are going to make sure they peak physically at the right moment, from the end of May through in June,” Hiddink said.
“I want to see our team very competitive in the World Cup. We’ve worked very hard and want to get into the second round.”
South Korea is in Group D and will play Poland on June 4, the United States on June 10 and Portugal on June 14.
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