|South Korea's national football team coach Paulo Bento, center, speaks to the players after the World Cup 2022 qualification match against Lebanon at Goyang Stadium in Gyeonggi Province, June 13. / Courtesy of KFA|
By John Duerden
It is debatable whether South Korea's route to the 2022 World Cup could have been easier or not but it could surely have been a lot more exciting.
The Taeguk Warriors have been placed in Group A of the final round of qualification. That means home and away games (if the scheduled format goes ahead as planned, but more of that later) against Iran, United Arab Emirates, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. It means five trips to the Middle East, a region that Korean players don't traditionally enjoy going to, and a battle to finish in the top two places in the group to automatically qualify for a 10th successive World Cup appearance.
There is some fine opposition and going to cities like Tehran and Beirut is always a memorable soccer experience, but there will be some wistful looks at Group B. Korea will meet Iran for the fourth successive qualification campaign and there was no real desire ― on either side ― to renew acquaintances. The last time Korea played old rival Japan on the road to the World Cup was in the 20th century. It was time to add another chapter to that history book but it was not to be.
And then there could have been a game against China, that other big regional rival. The two met in qualification for 2018 with China picking up a historic win in Changsha, a first-ever competitive victory against Korea that was widely celebrated. It would have been fascinating to see how far China has progressed.
What would really have been a great story was Vietnam who are led by Park Hang-seo, that old Korean coaching warhorse and one of the most recognizable figures in Korean soccer. He has added a pragmatic and harder side to a technically talented team and has brought considerable success, so much so that this is a first appearance at this stage for the Southeast Asian team. Park, on Guus Hiddink's coaching staff during the 2002 World Cup, crossing swords with Korea would have been a major story and not just in this part of the world.
It remains to be seen whether the group will start as scheduled with a home game against Iraq on Sept. 2. Travel restrictions and quarantine requirements may mean changes of venue and date but that is out of the hands of the soccer staff.
Coach Paulo Bento has to focus on who he will have to face and try to ensure that there is not a repeat of the 2014 and 2018 campaigns when the team struggled and limped into the World Cup.
"We should know as well that the last two qualifiers, 2014 and 2018, the (South Korean) team had a lot of difficulties to qualify," Bento said. "I think that is a good experience for us. We learned from what happened in the past."
"The pressure for the coaches will be present every time, in all the moments," he said. "This is one more moment to compete and to enjoy. Respecting all the teams in our group, we'll try to do our best and achieve our goal."