SEOUL, Dec. 8 (Korea Bizwire) – By all accounts, the South Korean men’s national football team enjoyed a successful 2015, winning 16 out of 20 matches against only one loss and three draws. In 17 of those matches, South Korea didn’t allow a goal.
South Korea have won all six matches so far in the second round of the Asian World Cup qualifying tournament, with 23 goals scored and none conceded. The team finished second at the AFC Asian Cup in January and captured the East Asian Cup in August.
These accomplishments were not lost on head coach Uli Stielike, who said Tuesday he was quite pleased with his first full year at the helm.
“If I had to sum up the year in one word, it’d be ‘satisfaction,’” the former German international said at his year-end press conference in Seoul. “Looking back on the year, I think we met our expectations. And I am also grateful for the players’ efforts. I tip my hat to them for everything they did this year.”
Stielike took over the national team in October last year, at a time when South Korea were still reeling from a disastrous FIFA World Cup in Brazil. South Korea managed one draw and two losses in group stage for their first winless World Cup since 1998. The lackluster result cost Hong Myung-bo his head coaching job after barely a year, and Stielike, who’d previously coached in Germany, Switzerland, Cote d’Ivore and Qatar, was hired to save South Korea from further misery.
South Korea split their first four matches under Stielike toward the end of 2014 but started 2015 by winning six consecutive matches, en route to reaching the AFC Asian Cup final. Australia beat South Korea 2-1, but it would be South Korea’s only loss of the entire year.
Under the no-nonsense head coach, South Korea have transformed into a more efficient squad on both ends, competing with more purpose on offense and more intensity on defense. They have also become more opportunistic near the goal, while their forechecking on defense has often led to superiority in ball possession.
As much as the players had accomplished feats on the field, Stielike said he was also pleased with how they handled themselves off the field.
“Above all, the players were always ready to work hard, and they also had a great attitude outside the stadium,” he said. “I think these two things are quite important, and thanks to the players who had both, we enjoyed a very good year.”
Stielike said the objective for 2016 is to keep up the positive momentum.
“Our fans’ expectations will continue to rise, and we will come under increasing pressure not to lose,” he said. “We have to prove to our fans that we can duplicate our success.”
If skeptics were to nitpick, they could point to South Korea’s schedule this year and say Stielike hasn’t had to coach against quality opponents from Europe or South America. Between the AFC Asian Cup, the East Asian Cup and the continental World Cup qualifiers, South Korea faced Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, New Zealand, Uzbekistan and Jamaica in friendly matches.
Jamaica were the highest-ranked opponent from that group — they were at No. 57 when the two played each other on Oct. 13 — and South Korea still handled them 3-0.
Stielike said he understands the 51st-ranked South Korea will face tougher opponents next year — namely Iran, the only Asian nation ranked above South Korea in the FIFA rankings at No. 45 — as South Korea will likely advance to the third round of the continental World Cup qualification. The coach stressed the key for South Korea is to stick to their guns.
“No matter who the opponents will be, we must not change our philosophy,” he said. “We accomplished more than just a great win-loss record. We were able to play an aggressive brand of football. I don’t think we should give up on all that just because we play a strong team. I think our players have grown more confident this year and we have to build on it next year.”
South Korea have routed the likes of Myanmar and Laos, while enjoying a vast advantage in ball possession. Stielike said South Korea “will obviously not enjoy” the same edge against Iran or Japan, ranked 53rd, but added that his players must continue to play with aggression and seek to dominate the ball.
Stielike has also worked magic with unheralded players. In January, he called up unknown striker Lee Jeong-hyeop for the Asian Cup, and he responded by scoring three goals in his first six matches. Stielike also unearthed more gems in hard-working midfielder Jung Woo-young and crafty midfielders Kwon Chang-hoon and Lee Jae-sung.
Stielike has frequented matches in the top-flight K League Classic and the second-tier K League Challenge, hoping to find more diamonds in the rust. He said he hopes to see more young players take the next step in 2016, citing Lee Jae-sung, a 23-year-old rising star for the K League Classic champion Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, as an example. Lee has scored four goals in 13 international matches, all of them coming this year.
“Lee Jae-sung used to be just a player who covered a lot of ground with little to show for all his running,” Stielike said. “In his position (as an attacking midfielder), it’s important to be active, but you also have to score goals and show concrete results. On the national team, Lee has developed into an offensive player with a finishing touch.”
Stielike said it was an honor simply to be offered the South Korean coaching position last year, and his feelings haven’t changed after more than a year at the helm.
“By my count, 45 players had a chance to play for the national team in 2015,” he said. “And we were able to enjoy our success not because of any 11 players, but because every one of the 45 players came together as one.”