• Thu. Jul 25th, 2024

South Korea have Son, but is Klinsmann the right coach?


Jan 8, 2024 #Sports


South Korea rank among Asia’s best sides, yet they last won the AFC Asian Cup in 1960; it’s a fact that feels as if it must be wrong, incongruous as it is with their global footballing standing. Yet as former Germany and United States coach Jürgen Klinsmann prepares to lead the Taeguk Warriors into their latest attempt to win the trophy, he is working not only against the weight of history, but also significant domestic skepticism.

South Korea are one of the few teams competing at January’s Asian Cup that most global observers will consider themselves somewhat familiar with. They have gone to every World Cup since 1986, finishing fourth as co-hosts in 2002 and progressing to the knockout phase twice since then. In 2022, they were part of a final matchday in Group H so gripping that it likely played a role in FIFA abandoning plans for three-team groups at the expanded 2026 tournament. South Korea’s under-23 side, meanwhile, were bronze medalists at the 2012 Olympics, subsequently advancing to the quarterfinals in Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo, and won the past three Asian Games titles. The K1 League is one of Asia’s strongest, and 12 AFC Champions League titles are more than those won any other nation.

Nevertheless, South Korea’s Asian Cup drought stands at 64 years and counting.

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“I think we’re capable of winning this Asian Cup,” Klinsmann said at the unveiling of his 26-player squad, which has been drawn in Group E alongside Malaysia, Jordan and Bahrain. “It takes a lot of work and a lot of special moments, but it’s absolutely doable. Therefore, I can’t wait until this tournament starts.”

Certainly, there’s reason for Klinsmann to be optimistic. Starting defender Kim Min-Jae was shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or after helping Napoli win their first Serie A title since 1990 last season before moving to Bayern Munich, while Hwang Hee-Chan has scored 10 goals and grabbed three assists in 20 games for Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Premier League this season and Lee Kang-In has established himself as a starter for Paris Saint-Germain in Ligue 1. Klinsmann has a strong contingent of European-based players supplemented by the K-League’s best, especially at the back.

And then there’s Son Heung-Min, the highest profile of all the players at the Asian Cup — and arguably the best.

Under new boss Ange Postecoglou, Son has experienced a renaissance at Tottenham Hotspur, scoring 12 goals and adding five assists in 20 Premier League games. Seeking to fill the void of leadership and production left by Harry Kane‘s move to Bayern, Son has taken on the responsibility of the armband and moved up a position in the middle of the park as a centre-forward for much of the season. He’s thriving.

“Sonny is elite in every sort of aspect,” Postecoglou said recently. “The example he sets as a person as much as a footballer. It’s inspiring for me when you see a person who has climbed a mountain many times in terms of his own football pedigree, but every day he loves what he does.”

There’s a level of serendipity to the Son-Postecoglou connection helping the former surge in form ahead of what, at 31, is potentially his last chance to serve as South Korea’s driving force on the continental level; it was just over eight years ago that Postecoglou’s Australia provided Son and his teammates with a dose of heartbreak when the Socceroos defeated South Korea 2-1 in the 2015 Asian Cup final in Sydney.

Son forced that game into extra time in its desperate final moments, only to see two substitutes introduced by Postecoglou — Tomi Jurić and James Troisi — combine to score a 105th-minute winner, securing Australia their most significant international trophy.

The ripple effect of that game was profound. Son moved from Bayer Leverkusen to Spurs in the months after that result, for what was then a record fee for an Asian player. Postecoglou exited the Australia job after (just) guiding them to qualification for the 2018 World Cup, commencing a journey that saw him win league titles with Yokohama F Marinos and Celtic before landing in north London during the offseason.

“I’m so grateful that I’m working with [Postecoglou] and I’ve learned so many things as a player and also as a human being,” Son told Optus Sport earlier this season. “I will do everything he asks because he’s giving so much good information to us as a human, as a manager so we are very, very happy about working with him.”

Son will miss a sizable chunk of football for Spurs during the Asian Cup, but Postecoglou was in no hurry to downplay the Asian Cup despite it meaning he’ll lose his talisman. “I hope Sonny goes on and finishes runner-up to Australia again, mate,” he said, “I’d be really happy about that.”

Postecoglou was speaking in jest, but South Korea knows something about runners-up finishes, for the final hurdle has often been the hardest amid their Asian Cup drought. There was a penalty shootout defeat to Saudi Arabia in the 1988 final, to go along with extra-time defeats by Iran and Australia in 1972 and 2015 respectively. On a further three occasions, they have been eliminated in the semifinals, on penalties against Iraq in 2007 and Japan in 2011.

Klinsmann was named South Korea’s new coach last February, on a deal that takes him through 2026, and replacing Paulo Bento who stepped down after leading the side to the round of 16 at the World Cup. Bento, for his part, is now in charge of the United Arab Emirates for their Asian Cup campaign.

Klinsmann, a serial winner during his playing career, heads to Qatar as one of the best-credentialed bosses at the Asian Cup. As a coach he led Germany to third place at the 2006 World Cup, arguably helping lay the foundation for the team’s win in 2014, had a spell in charge of Bayern Munich and spent five years at the helm of the United States. That tenure that featured continental success, an appearance in the round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup and an emphasis on development and pathways.

But Klinsmann’s time with Bayern lasted less than a full season before he was axed, with Philipp Lahm writing later that he was tactically inept. His tenure with the USMNT ended after he was sacked with the team bottom of their World Cup qualification group after a 4-0 loss to Costa Rica, setting the scene for a failure to reach a World Cup finals for the first time in 32 years. His last coaching role before South Korea was a disastrous 76-day stint in charge of Hertha Berlin from late 2019 to early 2020 that led to German outlet Deutsche Welle to proclaim “it’s clear that assistant coach Joachim Löw was the real power” behind his successful time with the German national team.

Less than a year into the South Korea role, Klinsmann is under the microscope again, even if an upswing in results has quelled the talk of a pre-Asian Cup sacking that emerged after going winless in his opening seven months. His tactics and in-game strategy have come under fire — familiar criticisms to USMNT fans — and he has been accused of failing to meet a commitment to relocate to Korea; media and fans have gone so far as to calculate how long he spends in Korea compared with his home in California.

Klinsmann has mostly copped this on the chin, defending himself by pointing to the international nature of his role and declaring: “I am a workaholic. I love to work like Koreans love to work. If I’m not maybe 24/7 in the country, I still work 24/7.” He did, however, snap at critics of his request for the shirt of Wales captain Aaron Ramsey after a 0-0 draw in Cardiff, labelling it “absolutely stupid” and insisting that he was doing so on behalf of his son, Jonathan.

Soon, though, the time for talking will end. If reputations hold, South Korea will meet fellow heavyweights Iran in the quarterfinals of the tournament — the stage of the tournament at which they were eliminated in 2019 by eventual champions Qatar. Then-coach Bento bounced back to guide the Taegeuk Warriors to the World Cup knockout phase, but there is doubt as to whether Klinsmann will be afforded the same opportunity in similar circumstances.

The simplest way to avoid finding out is to end the drought. That’s an eminently achievable task with the talent on hand. But the history of Korean football suggests it’s much easier said than done.


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