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One game separates Korea, World Cup

They’ll need to win or draw against Uzbekistan tonight
Sept 05,2017
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The Korean men’s football team trains at a field near Bunyodkor Stadium in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on Sunday in preparation for their final World Cup qualifying match against Uzbekistan. [YONHAP]
There will be a lot at stake when the Korean men’s football team takes the field tonight for their final World Cup qualifying match against Uzbekistan.

For one, there’s a spot in next year’s World Cup. If Korea loses against Uzbekistan, the odds are high that the team will fail to advance to the tournament, and the loss would extend beyond just the team. The Korea Football Association expects to lose nearly 100 billion won ($89 million) from dropped advertising.

Sports pundits depict an even grimmer scenario, going as far as calling failure to advance “the end of Korean football.”

Since the match will determine both teams’ World Cup fate, they have kept their practices private to prevent their strategies from getting exposed.

If Korea loses or ties against Uzbekistan tonight, based on the World Cup points system, they will need Syria to lose or tie against Iran. But if Syria wins against Iran and Korea loses, not only will Korea fail to advance to the World Cup for its ninth consecutive time, the Korea Football Association will lose a large number of its sponsors for the following season, eventually leading to decreased popularity of football and lowering players’ chances of playing in foreign leagues, or so the pundits say.

Members of the Korean team also won’t receive any prize money. During the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, even though Korea was eliminated during group matches, the team still received $9.5 million. With so much on the table, Korean fans have shown great interest in the game, with 42 local media outlets sending their reporters to Uzbekistan to cover it.

From formation to starting lineup, Shin Tae-yong, the team’s head coach, has fewer options for the upcoming match. Ki Sung-yueng, a midfielder, is still recovering from an injury and unable to compete, and Choi Chul-soon, responsible for Korea’s right defense, is unable to play due to yellow card accumulation. Although Ki’s absence was predicted, Choi’s absence is critical because one point in goal difference can change everything.

With such dismal cards in Shin’s hand, fans are once again turning their expectations to star striker Son Heung-min. Since the team’s qualification match against Qatar on Oct. 16, Son has yet to notch a goal for Korea, but hopes are high because the 25-year-old Chuncheon native has scored against Uzbekistan twice before during the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup in January 2016. Son’s inability to perform and the Korean football team’s prospects have correlated with each other. Since Son last scored for Korea in October, Korea has tied against Iran twice and lost to both China and Qatar in qualification matches.

“Since Uzbekistan will likely concentrate on Son Heung-min, just as Iran did,” said Kim Hwan, a football commentator for JTBC, “rather than dribble too much to Son, Korea needs to come up with a play where everyone can play together.”

On the other side of the field, Uzbekistan is desperate for a shot at the World Cup. The country has never made an appearance in the tournament. “We might have to end football in this country if we lose to Korea,” said Odil Ahmedov, captain of the Uzbek football team. “We want to avoid a situation like four years ago.” Back then, Uzbekistan lost in the playoffs, getting close to the World Cup but ultimately falling.

Uzbek football fans have their hope in midfielder Server Djeparov, who has scored 25 goals in 124 A-level matches. Djeparov is the team’s ace player, having won the Asian Football Confederation Player of the Year award twice, in 2008 and 2011. He also comes from a Korean league background, having played five seasons for FC Seoul, Seongnam FC and Ulsan Hyundai FC from 2010. Throughout his K League career, he scored 20 goals with 16 assists in 110 games.

Looking at his performance in the World Cup qualifiers, Djeparov has attempted 2.9 crosses per game, the most out of all participating teams, and made 13 chances.

“I played in the K League for a long time so I know a lot about them,” Djeparov said. “We’ll defeat Korea and advance to the World Cup.”

Korea’s match against Uzbekistan will be aired live by JTBC, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, at midnight on Wednesday.

BY PARK RIN, KIM HEE-SEON [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]