The Asian side has its sights set on a getting out of a difficult group, but the status of star Son Heung-min’s eye might ultimately determine its fortunes.
South Korea cruised through its qualifying campaign, losing only one game and finishing behind Iran in the group. Son Heung-min was tied for the Asian qualifying lead with four goals and no team conceded fewer than South Korea’s three goals from 10 matches. But the competition in Qatar will be drastically different than qualifying, and the South Koreans will be well aware of that with Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suárez lining up across from them in the group stage.
The Taegeuk Warriors are led by manager Paulo Bento, who has a 63.5% winning percentage since taking over South Korea after the 2018 World Cup. His conservative style has rubbed some critics the wrong way, but after a full World Cup cycle, Bento will know what he needs from such a tight-knit group. (Fun fact: He also coached Portugal at the 2014 World Cup, which also included a match against current Group H opponent Ghana).
South Korea didn’t look particularly inspiring in its last international window, drawing with Costa Rica and squeaking by an unimpressive Cameroon side with a 1–0 victory. It was also crushed by Brazil, 5–1, in a friendly over the summer, but recent wins over Iran, Egypt and Chile should give it some hope. Still, hope won’t be enough to get through this group—especially with Son smarting from a recent fractured eye socket suffered in the Champions League. He’ll be in Qatar, but his effectiveness is now a question mark for a side without a large margin for error.
Group H Schedule (all times Eastern)
– Uruguay, Nov. 24 8 a.m.
– Ghana, Nov. 28 8 a.m.
– Portugal, Dec. 2, 10 a.m.
Paulo Bento, hired in August 2018
Players to Watch
Son Heung-min, forward
The Tottenham forward comes into Qatar as South Korea’s golden star, and as one of the players to watch at the entire World Cup—provided he’s able to perform at full capacity after suffering his injury vs. Marseille. Son really jumped onto the international scene in the 2018 World Cup when he scored twice, including an emotional 96th-minute goal against Germany. Since then, Son has scored 89 goals for Spurs, including a career high 23 league goals last season that saw him share the Premier League Golden Boot with Mohamed Salah. He will have high expectations in Qatar, but the 30-year-old star may be hampered by his recovery.
Kim Min-jae, defender
The towering center back has been a revelation in his first season at Napoli. Essentially brought in as a replacement for Kalidou Koulibaly, who joined Chelsea over the summer, Kim has surpassed all expectations at Napoli and was even named Serie A Player of the Month in September in what was his first full month in the league. He is a fearless central defender who combines a relentless nose for the ball and excellent positioning with physical tools that could see him line up against any star attacker.
Hwang Hee-chan, winger
The Wolves winger has quite a bit of experience for being 26 and will soon make his 50th international appearance. Hwang has traversed Europe with stints in the Austrian Bundesliga, the German Bundesliga and now the Premier League, and comes into Qatar having played a main role for South Korea four years ago in Russia. While he has yet to score for Wolves this year, Hwang impressed in his Premier League debut season a year ago with five goals.
Jeong Woo-yeong, winger
Jeong was plucked from South Korea by Bayern Munich at 17 and went on to star for Bayern Munich II the following year. In 2019, he made the move to Freiburg with Bayern retaining the right to buy him back. Now 23, he has steadily become an integral force in the Bundesliga side’s attack with 10 goals over the last two-and-a-half seasons. Jeong will be paired up with Son in South Korea’s attack as Bento will try to utilize his pace and playmaking abilities to create chances.
World Cup History
Last appearance: 2018 (Group stage)
Best finish: Fourth place in 2002
Outlook and Expectations:
Despite missing out on the knockout stage in Russia, South Korea will have good memories left over from the 2018 World Cup. Its last few minutes were spent celebrating a win over Germany that knocked the reigning champion out of the World Cup in one of the biggest wins in the country’s history. South Korea will push to make the next step after making the knockout stage twice in its history, including that stunning run to the semifinals in 2002 as co-host.
But to do that in its 10th straight World Cup will require an extremely organized effort, and maybe some luck along the way. Like its 2018 run, most will have South Korea losing twice, although if it shocks a group favorite again, the Taegeuk Warriors will be in good hands. However, recording four points in this group would be a major accomplishment, because it means that it will have to take points off Uruguay in the group opener and/or Portugal in what could be a desperation-soaked group finale.
World Cup Squad
GOALKEEPERS: Jo Hyeon-woo (Ulsan Hyundai), Kim Seung-gyu (Al Shabab), Song Bum-keun (Jeonbuk Motors)
DEFENDERS: Cho Yu-min (Daejon Citizen), Hong Chul (Daegu FC), Kim Jin-su (Jeonbuk Motors), Kim Min-jae (Napoli), Kim Moon-hwan (Jeonbuk Motors), Kim Tae-hwan (Ulsan Hyundai), Kim Young-gwon (Ulsan Hyundai), Kwon Kyung-won (Gamba Osaka), Yoon Jong-gyu (FC Seoul)
MIDFIELDERS: Hwang In-beom (Olympiacos), Jung Woo-young (Al Sadd), Kwon Chang-hoon (Gimcheon Sangmu), Lee Jae-sung (Mainz), Lee Kang-in (Mallorca), Paik Seung-ho (Jeonbuk Motors), Son Jun-ho (Shandong Taishan)
FORWARDS: Cho Gue-sung (Jeonbuk Motors), Hwang Hee-chan (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Hwang Ui-jo (Olympiacos), Jeong Woo-yeong (Freiburg), Na Sang-ho (FC Seoul), Son Heung-min (Tottenham), Song Min-kyu (Jeonbuk Motors)