If South Korea’s national team is to reach the final of the Asian Games and win an exemption from military service for its players, then it will have to get past Vietnam and the “Korean Hiddink.”
Korean coach Park Hang-seo, a member of Guus Hiddink’s coaching staff at the 2002 World Cup when South Korea reached the semifinals, is coaching Vietnam.
South Korea’s unlikely run to the semifinals in ’02, in the World Cup it co-hosted with Japan, had millions of fans pouring onto the streets in cities across the country to celebrate victories.
Park’s success with Vietnam has sparked similar scenes in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and elsewhere when he took the national team to the final of Asia’s under-23 championship in January. At the Asian Games in Indonesia, another Under-23 tournament, Vietnam’s so-called Golden Stars have reached the last four and once more fans at home are getting excited.
“Back then (in 2002) I was an assistant coach, but now I’m a head coach,” Park said after Vietnam’s quarterfinal win over Syria set up a semifinal match against the South Koreans. “We stopped in the semifinals in 2002. But now we’ll not stop in the semifinals.”
The Asian Games semifinal gives Park a reunion with former K-League coaching counterpart Kim Hak-bom, now leading South Korea’s under-23s.
“I’ve known him since the K-League days and we’re sharing the same hotel,” Park said. “As you know, he is such a good tactician – he’s known as ‘(Alex) Ferguson of the K-League.'”
Park’s exploits with Vietnam, a perennial football underachiever in the region, have been followed closely in the Korean media.
“I really love my country, but now I’m head coach of the Vietnamese national team,” he said. “I’m having a good time with Vietnam and I’m enjoying my work.”
Now Park and his players stand in the way of Tottenham forward Son Heung-min and Korean squad. Son has been given leave from his Premier League club to take part in Indonesia as one of three overage players that each team is allowed.
The reason: The South Korean government rewards Asian Games gold medals and Olympic medals of any kind with an exemption from the compulsory 21-month military service. Failure to win a gold medal in Indonesia will likely mean that the 26-year-old Son will have to return to South Korea within the next two years to perform his national duty.
And that could be a severe interruption to his Premier League career. Son skipped the 2014 Asian Games on home soil, when the South Koreans won the gold medal.
He missed South Korea’s opener and went on as a replacement in a surprising group-stage loss to Malaysia, but scored in the deciding group game to ensure his team progressed to the knockouts.
The title defense was touch and go on Monday, with South Korea trailing 3-2 against Uzbekistan with 15 minutes of the quarterfinal remaining.
Hwang Ui-jo, the tournament’s leading scorer, completed his hat-trick to equalize at 3-3 and take the game into extra-time, and Hwang Hee-chan slotted home a penalty with two minutes remaining to send the South Koreans into the semifinals.
Now Son and teammates are in the position of having to beat a determined and disciplined Vietnam team coached by a man who knows Korean soccer extremely well.
“I’m trying to pass on my knowledge and football philosophy to this team,” Park said of his strategy with Vietnam. “I always emphasize to the team that it’s not about me, but it’s about us.”
The winner will progress to the Asian Games final to face either Japan or the United Arab Emirates on Sep. 1.
Story: John Duerden