URU 2 KOR 1: Time to go

HERE are some of the teams who have failed to qualify for the World Cup at least once over the past 25 years: England, France, Holland, Portugal.

In fact, only six countries have made it to every World Cup finals played in the last quarter-of-a-century: Brazil, Argentina, (West) Germany, Italy, Spain… and South Korea.

Consistency has been the watchword for South Korea at the World Cup ever since they made it to Mexico ’86. They’ve been to every finals since, and yet only twice have they made it beyond the group stage.

Thrillingly, they made it to the semi-finals in their homeland in 2002. (I say thrillingly – you may think differently if you are a fan of Portugal, Italy or Spain, all of whom were knocked out by the co-hosts along the way, the latter two in controversial circumstances.) And this year, they made it to the second round – uncharted territory for South Korea at a foreign World Cup.

Take out the 2002 run, and South Korea’s other seven appearances at the World Cup finals (1954, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2006 and 2010) have produced two victories – the first of which was four years ago against a Togo team in meltdown thanks to a row over unpaid bonuses.

South Korea have, somehow, managed to become the World Cup’s most consistently forgettable team – always there, yet invariably on the first plane home.

There was hope that this time, it might be different. Qualification was from the Asian Football Confederation section was expected, but there was much credit in coming through a 14-match campaign unbeaten – particularly as four of those games were against none-too-friendly neighbours North Korea.

And the statistics will show it has been different this time – because South Korea got beyond the group stage in South Africa. They fully deserved their 2-0 win over Greece in Port Elizabeth a fortnight ago, with Park Ji-sung scoring a very stylish goal, and there was even talk then that they might challenge Argentina for the top spot in Group B.

Diego Maradona’s men ran out 4-1 winners in Johannesburg five days later to put that particularly possibility to bed, and South Korea were ultimately fortunate to get the 2-2 draw with Nigeria that took them through to the knockout stages.

Yet with a decent draw – Uruguay in Port Elizabeth, followed by the USA or Ghana in the quarter-finals – South Korea must have considered they had a half-decent chance of matching the run of 2002. Park Ji-sung was speaking in those terms, albeit very cautiously, ahead of today’s last-16 clash.

This was a big chance for South Korea to prove that 2002 was no fluke. And they blew it.

They were certainly good enough to beat a Uruguay side who are too happy to rely on their defensive organisation. Park Chu-young hit the post with a beautifully-flighted free kick early on, and they had much of the game after that.

Yet they were behind at half-time, as comical defending allowed Luis Suarez to fire a Diego Forlan cross into an empty net from five yards.

And even when Lee Chung-yong took advantage of a rare Uruguay defensive cock-up to bundle in an equaliser midway through the second half, South Korea couldn’t finish the job. They looked the likelier winners until Suarez curled in a terrific second in the final 10 minutes.

Lee Dong-gook should still have forced extra-time, but was found wanting when it mattered. “How many goals did he score for Middlesbrough,” asked ITV co-commentator Craig Burley. “It was a round number,” replied his colleague Jon Champion, dryly.

South Korea did, at least, survive the group stages this time. But only by one day. Instead of being among the first 16 teams to be eliminated, they were the 17th. It’s progress. But it should have been more. Expect them to be in Brazil for 2014, though.

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