South Korea’s Saturday night Group B opener just might have been the turning point in the nation’s football mentality.
The confidence level of the Taeguk Warriors will be high after having rolled over the former European Champions with relative ease.
South Korean captain Park Ji-sung celebrates his second-half goal against Greece during the Group B first round 2010 World Cup football match at the Neison Mandela Bay stadium in Pork Elizabeth on Saturday. Yonhap News
Early goals in each half by defender Lee Jung-soo and Man of the Match midfielder Park Ji-sung marked the most thorough and complete win by the team in World Cup history off of home soil.
Their 2-0 victory over the 2004 European Champions surely must have sounded a stern warning to Group B favorites Argentina ahead of their Thursday night clash at the Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg.
In the Group B opening match against Greece, the Koreans performed different way to their last outing in Germany where they had a jittery start by conceding a goal and then coming back to beat Togo 2-1.
This time around the players looked calm, cool and had a swagger never before seen in previous collections of national team members in what was only their second World Cup win away from home.
They played with confidence and looked assured, commanding the midfield. The team played as though they were enjoying the beautiful game unaffected by the pressure from an entire nation that are expecting them to qualify to the knock out stages.
Saturday night’s performance showed a team full of players that have seemingly shrugged off tournament jitters that have pegged down their predecessors for over half a century of cup experience.
Not only did team Korea notch up its most convincing performance at a World Cup away from home, it was also an occasion that marked many a firsts.
The team became the first to win in the tournament which up until then, had seen a string of draws.
Host South Africa played its opening match against Mexico to a 1-1 result, France -- in an uncanny resemblance to their 2002 performance -- played to a goalless yawner against Uruguay while England made a hash out of an early lead by conceding a soft goal from USA striker Clint Dempsey, ending the match 1-1.
Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-sung’s second half goal -- an inspired individual run that tore apart the Greek defense -- placed him in the record books as the only Korean footballer to have scored in three World Cup tournaments.
His total tally now matchs Ahn Jung-hwan’s.
Defender Lee Jung-soo's seventh-minute volley was Korea’s fastest goal in tournament history.
The goal came from a set-play when Celtic midfielder Ki Sung-yueng whipped a free-kick into the Greek penalty box which the Kashima Antler’s defender coolly converted.
The ball, delivered from near the left-hand corner flag sailed over a sea of Greece’s blue kits landing at the far post where Lee pounced on the opportunity sidefooting the ball into the net.
It was Lee’s first World Cup appearance and first goal at the tournament.
For South Korea manager Huh Jung-moo, he became the first native coach to have guided the team to its first win in tournament history.
Before, all World Cup wins the Korean team had logged were under the tutelage of foreign managers like Guus Hiddink (2002) and Dick Advocaat (2006).
On Thursday, Huh will also be facing Argentine manager Diego Maradona as they did as players in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
His first appearance came in 1986 as a midfielder that famously and nearly sidelined the Argentine legend with a brutal tackle.
In the 1990 tournament in Italy, Huh was one of the trainers for the national team and in the following World Cup in the United States, he became part of the coaching staff which began his managerial career.
This is Huh’s fourth appearance at the World Cup as both player and coach.
Greece meanwhile has a mountain to climb at this World Cup needing at least a win and a draw to advance to the second round.
If Korea comes out as the victors against Argentina on Thursday then a berth at the second round is a lock.
If, however, Huh’s men gain just a point through a draw with Maradona’s team of world class footballers, Korea would need at least a draw against Nigeria to keep their fate in their own hands.
By Song Woong-ki