SYDNEY (Reuters) – South Korea coach Uli Stielike has been around football too long not to know all the mind games that go on. For most of the Asian Cup, his mantra has been that his team had no chance.
It was a good ploy that has worked well until now. South Korea upset Australia to top their group and are through to the semi-finals where they will play Iraq.
With three of the pre-tournament favourites — Japan, Iran and Uzbekistan — all out, and South Korea the only team left that hasn’t given up a single goal in the tournament, Stielike also knows he can’t play the underdog anymore.
“We have to accept that role as favourites now,” he conceded. “We came here in third place in the AFC rankings, Iraq are 13, so I think there is no discussion that we have to accept this role.
“But we also know we have to play the champions of 2007. It is history, but we have to be careful.”
Stielike only took over as South Korea coach late last year but he likes what he sees, a young, enthusiastic team that wants to do well.
The German shares their ambition to be the best team in Asia but at 60 years of age, he also knows the pitfalls of looking too far ahead.
On Sunday, he took his squad on a light practice run at Sydney’s sprawling Olympic Stadium and then told a news conference that his players had to be on their guard against a highly motivated Iraqi team or they would join the scrap heap.
“If we don’t want a surprise we have to work hard,” he said. “We are working to bring Korea back to the top rank in AFC and to go forward in the world rankings.
“We are 69th and we can’t be happy about this position, but you can only go forward with victories and victories can only come from good performances.”
Winning the Asian Cup would be a good start. One of the region’s traditional powerhouses, South Korea won the first two Asian Cups in 1956 and 1960, but haven’t won the title since.
None of the players in the current team were born when their country last won the tournament but they feel the same sense of civil duty to bring the trophy back.
“We haven’t won this tournament for such a long time it does give us additional motivation and responsibility,” said South Korean defender Park Joo-ho.
“The players are desperate to win this tournament. But at this moment we have to stay concentrated on Monday’s game.
“A lot of people at home really want us to win this tournament after 55 years, but at the moment we are only concentrating on the match.”