As in any sport, the road to victory in football lies just inches away from failure. The elusive victory cigar usually finds its way to someone willing to "fight for that inch," as Al Pacino put it in "Any Given Sunday," a sports classic in which he plays a football coach.
But that slim difference between glory and disgrace appeared to have widened to miles, not inches, for the South Korean team on Monday. They were thumped 4-0 by Ghana in Miami, Florida, in their last friendly before the 2014 FIFA World Cup. It was a bitter loss for the Korean side, which aims to reach the quarterfinals for the first time on foreign soil.
The Black Stars from Africa were no pushover. The youngest team in the 2014 World Cup, they were the third from the continent to reach the quarterfinals when they competed in South Africa in 2010. Even so, however, the Taegeuk Warriors not only fell short of a victory but were unable to score a single goal.
"Korea's offensive players and midfielders were slow on defensive coverage, which piled extra burden on the defenders," said Kim Dae-gil, a commentator for local channel KBS N. "Their poor conditioning is also a problem, and overcoming this is the key to the team's success."
Head coach Hong Myung-bo attempted to downplay the loss, saying his players were under immense pressure and none were 100 per cent in shape. However, the shortcomings that were exposed through the match may be difficult to overcome just days before the team's World Cup kickoff.
One obvious problem was the lack of leadership on the pitch. Whenever the Taegeuk Warriors were in a tight spot, there was no pivotal player to pull them out of crisis. Before the Brazil World Cup, the national team was led by silent-yet-strong captains, from recently retired Park Ji-sung in 2010 to current head coach Hong, who led Korea in its improbable run to the semifinals in 2002.
Strong leadership is nowhere to be found in the current squad. An elder member, Kwak Tae-hwi, is far from being a strong, vocal leader. Neither is striker Park Chu-young. Park, the only team member who will be playing in his third World Cup, registered only two shots in the Ghana match.
The burden of carrying the team fell on the shoulders of 25-year-old Koo Ja-cheol, the youngest captain in the history of the South Korean World Cup squad. He heads the youngest national team ever assembled, but has failed to fill the leadership void.
"I don't see any player who is able to act as a rallying point for the team. There is also no one to carry out the role of a playmaker in the midfield," said Kim Ho, a former manager of the national team for the 1994 US World Cup. He pointed out the jerky teamwork and porous defence as potentially fatal weaknesses for a team preparing for its first match in less than a week.
Pressure for victory or blame for a potential loss is piling up on Hong, who has allegedly favoured certain players in putting together the 23-man squad. The coach stirred up controversy last month by selecting Park, who was lackluster with Arsenal in the English Premier League and second-division English club Watford in recent years.