As always heading into the AFC Asian Cup, South Korea are ranked among the favourites to win the competition.
It is a status the Taegeuk Warriors retain despite the fact they have not won the tournament since prevailing as hosts back in 1960.
As yet, South Korea have been unable to translate their performances in Under-23 tournaments — an Olympic bronze medal in 2012 followed by two quarterfinal appearances at the Games and three consecutive Asian Games golds — to the senior stage.
Now coached by former Germany and USA boss Jurgen Klinsmann, the challenge is for a country that has qualified for the past 10 FIFA World Cups to step into the winners’ circle.
But the point of difference does not come from Klinsmann; on the contrary, the shambling end to his United States tenure and inauspicious record at club level means the head coach is a relative cause for concern.
The real reason to get excited and make sure you tune in for South Korea matches at the AFC showpiece is the concentration of elite talent in the team, including a couple of the very best players in the world in their positions, a prolific Premier League forward, and a rising young star seemingly destined for great things.
Why you should watch South Korea at the AFC Asian Cup
These are some of the big stars on show for South Korea at the AFC Asian Cup. They begin their campaign against Bahrain on January 15.
Son Heung-min (Tottenham)
This South Korea team is anything but a one-man band. However, Son remains the star attraction and he is enjoying a thrilling new lease of life at Tottenham this season.
After a disappointing campaign last time around, the 31-year-old has stepped into the void left by Harry Kane’s departure to Bayern Munich. Son and Kane were a formidable duo in tandem but the former has taken centre stage under Ange Postecoglou, playing as Spurs’ central striker and racking up 12 Premier League goals by the midway point of the season.
“I’m so grateful that I’m working with [Postecoglou] and I’ve learned so many things as a player and also as a human being,” Son told Optus Sport earlier this season. “I will do everything he asks because he’s giving so much good information to us as a human, as a manager, so we are very, very happy about working with him.”
If Son finally tastes Asian Cup glory after being revitalised under Postecoglou it will complete a beautifully poetic story arc. Postecoglou was the Australia coach who masterminded the Socceroos’ 2-1 extra-time win over South Korea in the 2015 final, where Son’s stoppage-time equaliser forced the additional period.
Six months later, he joined Spurs for €22 million and was on his way to becoming one of Europe’s premier attackers. Victory in the Asian Cup for the defining star of this Korean generation would, in its own way, be akin to Lionel Messi belatedly breaking his major tournament duck with Argentina. Like Messi, Son has an impressive supporting cast that has come together over the past few years.
Hwang Hee-chan (Wolves)
“Always we struggle at Wolves and when you see the quality individually that they have, especially up front with [Pedro] Neto, with [Matheus] Cunha, with the Korean guy, they are really, really good.”
It felt almost inevitable that the football gods would make Pep Guardiola pay for this press-conference faux pas and, sure enough, when Manchester City travelled to Wolves last September, Hwang gleefully smashed home the winner to hand the reigning champions their first defeat of the Premier League season.
“I saw this nickname before the game. I try to think only positive,” Hwang said afterwards. “He is one of the best coaches in the world. And he’s talking about me. For me, it’s an honour. I just thought about the positive thing.”
“THE KOREAN GUY” pic.twitter.com/nd6WrdyEbc
— Wolves (@Wolves) September 30, 2023
Right now, there’s plenty to be positive about. After a tricky time acclimatising to the Premier League, the 27-year-old former RB Leipzig forward has 10 league goals this term — more than his past two seasons combined — to join Son in the upper reaches of the Golden Boot race.
A powerful and imposing attacker, Hwang is adept at leading the line but also revels when roving in to cause damage from either flank. In combination with Son, it gives Klinsmann an attack that is enviably destructive and versatile.
Kim Min-jae (Bayern Munich)
The path trodden by players such as Son and Hwang is a familiar one: Korean exports to the Bundesliga, who cut their teeth in Germany’s top division and sometimes move on to even bigger and better things.
Kim has inverted the trend, having taken a more circuitous route to Europe’s big five leagues. He joined Napoli in 2022 via Beijing Guoan and Turkish giants Fenerbahce.
The 27-year-old had the not-inconsiderable task of replacing Chelsea-bound Kalidou Koulibaly, a mainstay of Napoli’s defence and one of the most highly regarded centre-backs in Europe. Kim made light of this brief, shining as an accomplished, unflappable and technically excellent star at the heart of Luciano Spalletti’s backline.
He was named Serie A’s Best Defender for 2022/23 as Napoli won their first Scudetto since the days of Diego Maradona in 1990. Kim also made the Ballon d’Or shortlist, by which point Bayern Munich had decided to pay his €58m release clause and make him the most expensive Asian player in history.
Rather than bringing in a Korean rough diamond, the superpower of German football had signed the real thing, the finished article.
Lee Kang-in (Paris Saint-Germain)
The story of Son guiding Korea to 2018 Asian Games success and, in the process, earning an exemption from his country’s strict laws on national service, was a story that captured the imagination and also provided a template.
For Son in 2018, see Lee in 2023. The 22-year-old Paris Saint-Germain attacking midfielder helped his country to glory and ticked the box as far as the military was concerned into the bargain.
It felt foolish to back against Lee at that point, given the youngster’s flourishing career is progressing at a rate of knots. After graduating through Valencia’s academy to make 44 La Liga appearances over the course of three seasons, Lee was allowed to join Mallorca on a four-year deal in 2021.
His technical qualities and dazzling dribbling abilities caught the eye of a PSG seeking to do things a little differently in the post-Neymar and Messi era. Since moving to the French capital last July, Lee has thrived and become a firm favourite of boss Luis Enrique.
Lee Kang In in his first final with PSG 🇰🇷❤️
— Ligue 1 English (@Ligue1_ENG) January 3, 2024
In a team that the head coach demands must switch between 4-3-3 and 3-4-3, his adaptability in different roles — predominantly out wide but also in midfield — has been crucial. Klinsmann selected Lee on the right wing during South Korea’s most recent World Cup qualifiers when they swatted aside Singapore and China, forming an exciting trident with Son and Hwang behind Midtjylland centre-forward Cho Gue-sung.
Lee could also be deployed centrally, adding creative flair to the dependable partnership of Park Yong-woo and Red Star Belgrade standout Hwang In-beom.
It is a curse for golden generations that they can hear the clock ticking ever louder and this will surely be a factor for Son when his tournament gets underway in Qatar. By contrast, in this team and others, Lee has a decade or more of boundless possibilities ahead of him. Like South Korea’s Asian Cup campaign, it should be an awful lot of fun to see it unfold.