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Bento on thin ice after Yokohama horror show

South Korea's national football team boss Paulo Bento, center, speaks to players during a training session at the Mitsjawa Stadium in Yokohama, Japan, March 23. / Courtesy of Korea Football Association
South Korea's national football team boss Paulo Bento, center, speaks to players during a training session at the Mitsjawa Stadium in Yokohama, Japan, March 23. / Courtesy of Korea Football Association

By John Duerden

There were some concerns in South Korea ahead of Thursday's friendly match in Japan. And they were more than just concerns over playing a warm-up in the middle of a global pandemic. There were genuine concerns that a weakened Korea would struggle against a relatively strong Japan. It was worse than that as the Taeguk Warriors were lucky to leave with a 3-0 defeat.

"The Yokohama Humiliation," as the match is now being called, was the worst performance the Korean squad had shown in quite some time. Not having stars such as Son Heung-min, Hwang Ui-jo and Hwang Hee-chan ― all playing in the top leagues in England France and Germany ― was always going to make it tough.

Losing to Japan under such circumstances can be excused. But what cannot be excused is the manner of defeat. A Japanese journalist said to me afterwards, "This didn't feel like a Japan-South Korea game. It didn't feel like Korea at all." There was a lack of intensity, intelligence and much more.

It was Japan who finished the game feeling that more goals should have been scored. Had the Samurai Blue been just a little more ruthless then it really would have been embarrassing. Korea barely had a shot to trouble the goalkeeper.

Something similar happened a decade ago. Korea lost 3-0 in Sapporo in 2011 with most of their stars. It ended Korea FA's support for coach Cho Kwang-rae who was out by the end of the year.

Current boss Paulo Bento may or may not know about that and there are some mitigating circumstances. He was missing some of his best players and has spent almost no time with his team since November 2019. There were some who questioned the wisdom of playing at all and the Portuguese boss must now be wishing it had never happened.

Is he in danger? Under normal circumstances he would be and there is little doubt that his position is less than secure. The KFA has demonstrated in the past that it can be ruthless when it comes to the World Cup. Only four nations ― Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain ― have a longer continuous presence at the tournament. Korea has made the last nine since missing out way back in 1982 and sees qualification for the tournament almost as a divine right.

World Cup qualification resumes in June with four games in 12 days on home soil. Despite sitting in second-place in Group H behind Turkmenistan, Korea should get the points to take the top spot and move into the final round. That is set to start in September and there have to be improvements by then. Korea could find itself in a group with Japan and a number of other top teams in Asia. This kind of performance would not be acceptable.

So there is a lot of work to do for Bento and not much time in which to do it. The national team does not seem to have progressed much since the Portuguese boss took over in August 2018. He can, rightly, point to a lot of time lost since coronavirus came on the scene. But then every coach could say the same.

Last Thursday was a very bad day at the office. It is unlikely that he will be allowed any more as Korea needs to improve, and fast.




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