|Profiles - World Cup Teams - Korea Republic|
Of all the emotions felt by South Koreans in the run-up to the biggest event
ever staged in their country, the strongest is anxiety.
While there is a large measure of pride in the privilege of opening Asia's first-ever World Cup soccer finals, this is balanced by a pervading feeling that the team may not do justice to the magnificent facilities being provided.
Indeed, many Koreans note the bitter irony that, just as the world begins to focus on Asian football for the first time, they are losing their place as the continent's leading force.
This in itself would be cause for concern; that top-dog status has been usurped by archrival and World Cup finals co-host Japan has caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
South Korea's stagnation has been the result largely of a combination of their own success at regional level and a lack of ambition on the world stage.
Qualification for more World Cup finals tournaments than any other Asian country - five - had bestowed a pride in what was seen as an unassailable position of regional supremacy.
That consistency was matched only by a failure to win a single match in those five outings seemed secondary.
Just as repeated defeats of Japan seemed enough to keep everyone satisfied, however, the recent successes of their neighbour under Philippe Troussier started the alarm bells ringing.
The ebullient Frenchman's occasionally outrageous forecasts regarding his side's World Cup prospects are in marked contrast to the pronouncements of the doomsayers of the South Korean media, many of whom have predicted the historical embarrassment of becoming the first host nation to fail to get beyond the first round.
The side charged with avoiding this scenario is, with the finals drawing ever closer, currently in the throes of major restructuring.
Following an unsuccessful approach to Aime Jacquet, Guus Hiddink was appointed head coach at the end of 2000, becoming the first foreigner to take the top job in Korean football.
The former PSV Eindhoven, Real Madrid and Holland manager finds himself with a far different challenge to any he has faced before; trophies are not expected. This time the mission is to get the best possible results from limited resources.
Korea's biggest problem lies in a lack of experience against top-quality teams.
Repeated thrashings of the minnows of Asian football are worth little in terms of preparation, and results against European opposition have been almost uniformly poor.
In Korea's favour will, of course, be home advantage, no small factor for a team that rarely travels well. There is also the undeniable spirit and tenacity that comes from the gruelling training regimes and rigid discipline of the K-League.
This spirit is something opponents will ignore at their peril, as witnessed by Belgium, who went out of France '98 following a 1-1 draw with a Korean side that had nothing but pride left to play for.
Roughly half of Hiddink's final squad should come from the domestic professional league, which has provided four of the last six Asian club champions, including current holders Suwon Blue Wings.
The remainder will be drawn from those who have made the lucrative move to the J.League, as well as a small cadre of European-based players, including Perugia's Ahn Jung-hwan and Seol Ki-hyeon of Anderlecht.
Recent performances have shown a team that is still lacking in confidence and organisation, particularly at the back with 32-year-old captain Hong Myung-bo having slowed down noticeably.
Hong's Kashiwa Reysol clubmate Hwang Sun-hong is also facing his last World Cup but showed in the Confederations Cup why he is still regarded as one of Asia's classiest strikers and will be summoning up all his strength for a stirring finale.
While some of the older hands are fading, however, the new regime has allowed a number of younger players to shine. Among those likely to impress is remarkably mature 21-year-old Song Chong-gug, who has shown under Hiddink that he can play any number of positions comfortably.
Whether South Korea make it beyond the group stages may depend largely on the luck of the draw, but the three sides that end up in the same group as the co-hosts should expect to face a side that will play as if their lives depended on getting a result.