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Football coach wants Ki and Son in play

Team Korea’s two stars are still in rehab, but Shin has high hopes
Aug 11,2017
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From left: Son Heung-min, left, and Ki Sung-yueng celebrate after scoring a goal against Qatar during the Korean team’s final-round qualifier for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in October 2016. Shin Tae-yong, head coach of the Korean men’s football team. [YONHAP]
Shin Tae-yong, head coach of the Korean men’s football team, has some unlikely cards up his sleeve for the team’s roster in their final two qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

During a halftime interview Wednesday at the Korean FA Cup quarterfinal match between the Suwon Samsung Bluewings and Gwangju FC, Shin said he would call up Ki Sung-yueng and Son Heung-min, who are both still recovering from injuries, to the national team for its remaining matches this year.

The pick is surprising, no less because fans expected Shin to select star players from the K-League while Ki and Son, who play in the English Premier League, are still recuperating.

Although there was never a question that Ki and Son would be first on the list in consideration for the roster, given their high performance in the EPL, there were also doubts about whether they would be able to fully recover from their surgeries in time for the games.

Shin himself had earlier stated that he would only select players who can help win the team’s matches against Iran on Aug. 31 and Uzbekistan on Sept. 3.

Son appears to be recovering faster than expected and is almost done with his rehabilitation.

“It’s true that he’s still recovering from his problem,“ Mauricio Pochettino, head coach of Son’s club, Tottenham Hotspur, told ESPN. “Then next week we need to assess him if he’s available to be selected for next week. We’ll see next week how he is and then we’ll decide.”

Shin has always held Son in high regard and considered the idea of using him as a substitute if he wasn’t fully recovered by the time of the match.

“I can’t call up Son early, but once he returns to Korea, we will check up his condition,” Shin was quoted as saying on Yonhap News Agency. “Then I have to think about whether I should start him or use him as a substitute.”

Ki, though, is in a different state. After Korea’s most recent World Cup qualifier against Qatar in June, he had to undergo a knee surgery, and doctors said he would be out for three months. Swansea City, Ki’s team, expects him to be absent from matches through mid-August, making it nearly impossible for him to join Team Korea for the World Cup qualifiers later this month.

Despite the odds, Shin is still willing to call him up to the national team.

“I want to give Ki the captain’s armband even if he can’t play,” Shin was quoted as saying on Yonhap. “Ki has been serving a central role well in the national team.”

When Shin was appointed head coach in June, he said he would make a roster of 25 to 26 players. Though only 23 players are required in a full roster, Shin wanted to have additional players in case they might be needed for what will likely be tough qualification matches. If Shin decides to add Ki, who can’t play at all, on the list, he would be wasting a spot on the roster.

Nevertheless, Shin insists on putting Ki in the lineup because he believes in the captain’s leadership ability, which the team desperately needs to win. During Shin’s first press conference as coach, he said one of the biggest problems he saw in players was lack of confidence.

“When training, I saw so much confidence in them, but during matches, they seemed too nervous,” Shin said. “They seemed overwhelmed by the fact that they had to win from fans’ high expectations.”

Shin believes Ki can play the perfect role as captain, with the ability to mediate between the coaching staff and players. He has been serving as the team’s captain since October 2014 and played in the World Cup twice, in 2010 and 2014. He has competed in all eight qualification matches for the upcoming World Cup and scored a total of 93 goals since 2008.

BY SONG JI-HOON [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]