S. Korea entering World Cup qualifier vs. Thailand under cloud of controversy

Members of the Korean men's national football team warm up before a training session at the Goyang Stadium in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, March 18. Yonhap

Korea will enter their next FIFA World Cup qualifying match this week under a lingering cloud of controversy, with the team’s interim boss trying to shield players from the media.

Korea, world No. 22, will host 101st-ranked Thailand at 8 p.m. Thursday at Seoul World Cup Stadium, for the teams’ third Group C match in the second round of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) qualifying for the 2026 World Cup.

Korea won their first two matches in November last year. There are nine groups of four, and the top two nations from each group will advance to the third round.

Korea will be heavily favored in this home-and-away showdown against Thailand, who will host the Taegeuk Warriors next Tuesday in Bangkok.

The focus of Thursday’s match will likely be on what players say and how they handle themselves off the field, rather than how they will play on the pitch.

It will be Korea’s first match since their 2-0 loss to Jordan in the semifinals of the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar in February. The disappointing results, as Korea failed to end their 64-year title drought, cost head coach Jurgen Klinsmann his job.

On top of the semifinal exit, controversy that emerged afterward has further angered fans here.

It was belatedly revealed that midfielder Lee Kang-in had been involved in a scuffle with team captain Son Heung-min over a game of table tennis on the eve of the Jordan match. Son suffered a dislocated finger in the incident, and Lee, one 추천 of the team’s youngest players at 22 at the time, took a beating from the public for challenging the authority of Son, one of Korea’s most beloved athletes and a highly respected skipper.

Son wanted the team dinner before the match to be an opportunity for bonding, but Lee and some other junior members of the team finished their meal early to play table tennis. Son and Lee got into a shoving match when Lee defied Son’s order to rejoin the rest of the team.

Lee later visited Son in London, where the latter plays for Tottenham Hotspur, to apologize in person. The photo of the two principal figures smiling with arms around each other, posted on Son’s Instagram page, did little to assuage fans.

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