|An electronic panel shows the draw for Group H ― Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay and Korea ― during the draw for the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Doha, Qatar, April 1. EPA-Yonhap|
By John Duerden
Korea's head coach Paulo Bento allowed himself a little smile at the end of the draw for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar on Friday evening local time but it is hard to know what emotion was lying behind it. Was it an appreciation of being drawn in Group H with Portugal, Uruguay and Ghana ― teams from three different continents? Was it because the Portuguese boss was thinking about taking on his home country, the one he represented as a player? Was it because he was thinking it is a tough draw or was it because he thinks it is not impossible for Korea to progress to the next stage?
It could be all of these things. While the situation on grass is never quite simple, on paper the group could have been tougher (Japan will take on Spain and Germany, champions from 2010 and 2014). It also could have been easier with?Asian rival Iran just having to finish above the USA and one of Wales, Scotland or Ukraine to progress but until it starts you never know. Back in 2018, the Taeguk Warriors stunned the world by beating Germany after losing to Mexico and Sweden.
This group ― remember the top two of the four go to the knockout stage and a possible clash with Brazil ― should be much more interesting than that. Uruguay is the opening opponent on Nov.24. The South Americans are always tough, even when they are not that strong. Much focus will be on their renowned strike force of Edinson Cavani of Manchester United and Atletico Madrid's Luis Suarez, who scored both goals as the South Americans defeated Korea 2-1 in the Round of 16 in 2010. Both were world-class in their day but are now both 35. The threat is still there but Uruguay will have far from the youngest roster in the tournament and were a distant third behind Brazil and Argentina in South American qualification. A fast and young Korean team could cause problems but they will have to be on their guard against La Celeste who may have plenty of years on the board but also have the requisite experience and no little skill.
Ghana is the second opponent, the lowest-ranked of the qualifying teams so far. Korea has a mixed record against teams from Africa and the 4-2 loss to Algeria at the 2014 World Cup was especially painful. At that tournament, Ghana made the last eight and came very close to defeating Uruguay to move into the last four but was foiled by Suarez. This version of the Black Stars does not look to be as strong though there is a roster with plenty of European and especially English Premier League?experience. Midfielder Thomas Partey plays for Arsenal, striker Jordan Ayew is with Crystal Palace and then there is Leicester City defender Daniel Amartey. Ghana will be looking at the likes of Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur and Hwang Hee-chan of Wolverhampton Wanderers and saying something similar.
The final game is against Portugal, probably the weakest team from Pot 1 that Korea could have drawn. Much attention will inevitably be on five-time World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo but the Europeans did not top their qualifying group, finishing three points behind Serbia. These big boys are vulnerable, Ronaldo will be 37, and there is also the fact that coach Bento should know all about them. If anyone can find a little-known weakness then it is him. The boss will be swamped by interview requests from his homeland in the coming weeks and months and will be careful not to give too much away. He won't forget that Korea defeated Portugal in 2002, after all, that was his last international game as a player.?
Korea is capable of defeating each one of these teams on any given day and capable of losing to all of them too. Something in between is the likeliest outcome and that means that it will come down to small margins and all Korean fans will be hoping that Bento is smiling once again when the group stage is all over. The real countdown starts now.