by STEVE HAN
Uli Stielike, head coach of the South Korean men’s national soccer team, made his debut in a pair of friendly matches over the last four days. Stielike’s Korea got off to a bright start with a dominant 2-0 win over Paraguay last Friday, but was humbled by World Cup quarterfinalist Costa Rica on Tuesday after losing 3-1.
It’s still too early to judge, however. The purpose of friendlies is to identify problems rather than proposing solutions. Also, several players stood out in the last two games and gave their German coach a platform to build a stronger team with the Asian Cup coming up in three months. Here are three Korean players to look out for as Stielike made his coaching debut.
Nam Tae-hee. I interviewed Nam, who now plays professionally in Qatar, while he was still playing in France in February of 2011. Nam told me at the time that he feels more comfortable playing in his natural position in the middle, but he has since been played out of position on the right wing for the last three years for Korea. Stielike, who was Nam’s next-door neighbor from 2012 to earlier this year in Qatar, started the midfielder in his natural position in both matches. The result? Nam scored to extend Korea’s lead in its 2-0 over Paraguay and played a key role with a cheeky dummy during the setup to his only team’s goal against Costa Rica. The challenge now for Nam is to sustain the same level of play when Korea’s regular starting midfielder Koo Ja-cheol returns from injury.
Lee Chung-yong. A key player for Korea since the late 2000s, Lee’s struggle at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil this summer was seen as one of the biggest reasons for Korea’s early exit. Under Stielike, however, Lee revived his signature weaving runs through the opposing defense and telling passes to create goalscoring opportunities for his teammates. The 26-year-old is no longer the explosive dribbler after recovering from a double fracture in his right leg in 2012. But he is showing maturity in his play by contributing on defense as well as getting involved in Korea’s attacking build up by staying tucked into the central areas of the midfield. He may not be the risk-taking speedster down the wings he once was, but he now seems more mature and consolidated in his play with his all-around game.
Kim Seung-gyu. During the 2014 World Cup, we saw how exceptional goalkeeping could be the difference-maker. Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas, for example, was one of his team’s best players as it advanced to the quarterfinals, and Manuel Neuer of eventual champion Germany redefined the role of a goalkeeper by playing as an auxiliary defender when his back line positioned itself high up the field. Kim, Korea’s 24-year-old shot stopper who is coming off an excellent performance at the Asian Games, which Korea won the gold medal for the first time since 1986, has displayed his quickness and reaction skills to show that he may be the quality starting goalkeeper this team has lacked since former captain Lee Woon-jae retired.