After all the waiting, the FIFA Under-20 World Cup is finally here. At 8 p.m. today, at Jeonju World Cup Stadium, South Korea takes on Guinea in Group A.
There is pressure on the Taeguk Warriors to succeed, as there always is and always should be. There is added pressure this time, however, as Korea is the host nation. Failure to progress to the second round would be a major embarrassment, especially as only eight of the 24 teams will be eliminated in the first round. The top two teams from each of the six groups and the four best third-placed finishers will progress.
The glamour games against Argentina and England, the latter already almost a sell-out in Suwon next Friday, can wait and have to be forgotten about.
Korea needs to defeat Guinea. If that happens, the last 16 and the target set by coach Shin Tae-yong of the last eight will be within sight. Failure to win does not mean it is over but will really remove any margin for error.
Coach Shin has to avoid the mistake of underestimating Guinea, a talented and physically strong team that finished third at the African U-20 tournament earlier this year. It is true, however, that the Asian team is expected to win.
One advantage that Korea has, apart from that of being at home, is the excellent preparation it has carried out. There have been extensive training camps and three warm-up games in the days leading up to the big kick-off.
The final clash ended in a 2-2 tie with Senegal, a team that defeated Guinea in Africa in March. That was supposed to be a chance to get some experience against African players.
There should not be too much read into the result. Coach Shin admitted he was playing a game of cat-and-mouse with Guinea ready to analyze the game.
“We tried to hide our defense strategy today,” Shin said. “We didn’t want to expose our tactics to the other opponents at the World Cup.
“Our opponents probably have realized who eight of 11 of our starting players will be, but they will have a hard time figuring out about the rest of the players.
“The reason why we tried to use as many players as possible in friendly games is to confuse our opponents and let our players stay alert until the end.”
Korea carries a goal threat in the shape of star Lee Seung-woo, of Barcelona’s Youth team, and the prolific Cho Young-wook.
The problem could be at the other end. Korea’s defense is not the strongest. And with Guinea possessing speed in its attack and also threatening from set pieces, concentration has to be constant.
While Lee gets the headlines, fellow Barcelona star Paik Seung-ho can really make a name for himself. The midfielder is thought of highly in Barcelona and his performances in Korea over the next few days and hopefully weeks will be watched almost as closely in Spain as in Korea.
But if the Koreans are to perform well and reach their minimum target of the last eight, other heroes will need to emerge. It remains to be see if, and who.
That is one of the most exciting things about tournaments _ the sense that anything can happen. And that is certainly the feeling in South Korean football as the big day dawns.