|South Korean goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu blocks a shot during training at the Steinberg Stadium in Leogang, Austria, Saturday. / Yonhap|
By John Duerden
The 2018 World Cup starts this week as host Russia takes on Saudi Arabia in Moscow. South Korea's players will be safely settled at their training base in St Petersburg, watching on television alongside hundreds of millions of others. Korean minds in the city by the River Neva will be on the following Monday and the city of Nizhny Novgorod and a clash with Sweden.
That is just seven days away but the roster must be torn between wanting the opening game to come as quickly as possible or dreading the prospect. The last two games have been troubling. On June 1 there was a 3-1 loss against Bosnia and Herzegovina in Jeonju when the Europeans highlighted Korean defensive vulnerabilities in a ruthless and clinical fashion.
Then came the flight to Austria and a training camp. It also involved another warm-up game, this time with Bolivia. It ended 0-0 and the defense looked sound even if it wasn't tested too much. There were other worrying signs however. The Korea Football Association (KFA) was even moved to deny that there is a rift in the team which is not something that it would have wanted, or expected, to be doing just before the start of a ninth successive World Cup.
Words were exchanged between star attacker Son Heung-min and midfielder Jung Woo-young late in the game and it did not look as if they were talking about the Austrian weather.
"In a free kick situation before the final whistle, Jung was supposed to pass the ball to Son, but they couldn't execute it well at the right time," a KFA official said. "Son later told Jung with a smile it would've been better if he kicked the ball a little late."
"Jung told Son that he thought Son was going to make a run when he kicked the ball," the KFA official said. "The reason why Jung frowned was that he was physically tired as the match was nearing an end."
Son looked frustrated throughout the game, perhaps at his inability to score and the exchange with Jung may have been a quick release of stress or a sign of something more serious in the ranks. Korea has long prided itself on a fine team spirit. If that is not quite as strong then there really will be problems getting out of a group that also contains Mexico and Germany.
The other three teams have been busy too. Sweden's latest tryout was a 0-0 tie with Denmark that will not have told the Korean coaching staff too much they didn't know already. Sweden is a solid and well-organized team that is hard to beat but lacks a little excitement.
Denmark is the next opponent of Mexico, Korea's second opponent. El Tri said goodbye to fans with a comfortable warm-up win over Scotland while Germany's preparations have not been great. A defeat against neighbor Austria was followed by a 2-1 win over Saudi Arabia. Neither performance was especially impressive but then Germany, defending champion, tends to come alive when the action starts.
Next for Korea is a final game against Senegal on Monday Austrian time. The game will be played behind closed doors but it is hoped that whatever happens, the performance improves and the Taegeuk Warriors emerge united and confident and ready for Sweden.