Hong hoping his luck rubs off on Koreans

AFP| Updated: May 18, 2014, 10:56 AM IST

Seoul: Hong Myung-Bo has lived a charmed life in football and he will be hoping his luck holds as he leads a misfiring South Korea into the World Cup.

Hong, 45, is a Korean icon mainly for one moment -- the side-footed penalty which took Guus Hiddink`s side into the 2002 World Cup semi-finals, causing national rejoicing.

The image of the usually stern defender, with his arms outstretched in celebration and a rare smile on his face, has come to symbolise one of the country`s great sporting triumphs.

But that surprise run to the semi-finals, the best ever by an Asian side, is also a burden for the Taeguk Warriors who have shouldered unrealistic expectations ever since.

And recent form suggests that South Korea, who needed goal difference to qualify and are currently ranked just fourth among Asian teams, will have their work cut out in Brazil.

A dearth of goals -- 15 in 14 games under Hong, including four against Haiti -- does not bode well, and while the last 16 is achievable, there they should meet either Portugal or Germany.

Dissatisfaction with their recent performances is palpable in South Korea. But with Hong at the helm, the more romantic fans will allow themselves to dream.

Hong was South Korea`s captain in 2002, and he played in four World Cups in total -- the first Asian player to do so.

After collecting a national-record 136 caps, Hong turned to coaching and he has succeeded at every level, including at the 2012 Olympics where South Korea won bronze.

Last June, Hong took over as national coach from Choi Kang-Hee, who stepped down as planned after World Cup qualification -- which South Korea achieved by a whisker.

The position is regarded as something of a poisoned chalice since the days of Hiddink, with every manager since the Dutchman measured by the yardstick of 2002.

Taking charge of an unconvincing team just a year before the World Cup, Hong seems set up to fail. Fans will judge him harshly if South Korea cannot escape a Group H also containing Belgium, Algeria and Russia.

But despite their lack of goals, South Korea`s attack is not toothless, with Bayer Leverkusen`s Son Heung-Min and Arsenal`s on-loan striker Park Chu-Young both threatening up front.

The defence has generally been solid, apart from some critical lapses in concentration. Some cynics even say Hong, who still looks in tip-top shape, should lace up his boots and join them.

Core members of the team have been playing for Hong since their under-20 days, and whether such familiarity can breed success is one of the key questions for South Korea in Brazil.