For Korean football, attention turns back to World Cup qualification

Paris Saint Germain's Lee Kang-in reacts during a French Ligue 1 football match against Reims in Paris, March 10.  EPA-Yonhap

It is a relief to finally get people’s attention back on the football field after the events of the last few weeks. On Thursday, South Korea takes on Thailand in Seoul in the third game in the second round of qualification for the 2026 World Cup. After two wins from the first two games against Singapore and China, a third victory would give the Taeguk Warriors a foot in the third and final stage.

Much has changed since Korea defeated China 3-0 in Shenzhen in November, even though it was just four months ago. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has gone after the crazy roller-coaster of the Asian Cup in January and February, a campaign that ended in a 2-0 defeat to Jordan at the semifinal stage.

We don’t need to talk again about what happened on the field, though it is safe to say that not many were sorry to see the German return to his home in California. The decision was made, probably the correct one, to appoint an interim coach. It remains to be seen if Hwang Sun-hong is the right man for the job but he has plenty of experience at the K League level as well as with the Korean U-23 team.

Korea will expect to win on Thursday, though the Asian Cup demonstrated that teams like Thailand should not be underestimated. The major focus has been on the situation between Son Heung-min and Lee Kang-in. According to reports, there was a scuffle between these two stars before the game with Jordan that ended with Son, the captain, suffering a dislocated finger. It became a massive story.

Hwang, rightly, selected both for this first game and is keen to deal with any potential problems regarding team spirit. “Because I 안전 wasn’t there with them at the time, it’ll be difficult for me to find out every little detail. But I did learn that people might have had some misunderstandings on a few things,” Hwang said. “Even though I won’t be with this team for very long, I will try to clear the air within the team through communication.”

It will be harder for Hwang to deal with the public’s reaction. Lee apologized for his part in the situation after coming under severe criticism from the media and fans. He even went to London to visit Son who then asked fans to forgive the younger player.

Lee, who plays for Paris Saint-Germain, could be forgiven for feeling some trepidation when he collects his luggage at Incheon International Airport and then walks into the arrivals hall. The media will be waiting and the fans will provide their judgment at Seoul World Cup Stadium — positive or otherwise.

Whatever happens, if Lee can curl in a free-kick or score one of his spectacular goals then events at the Asian Cup will quickly become ancient history. This is all about beating Thailand and then getting to the World Cup. After Seoul, the two teams meet in Bangkok five days later. Korea is already in first place in the group of four and the top two will progress to the next stage.

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