James Lawton: South Korea push the football of fear closer to oblivion

Germany have brought little to the tournament while the co-hosts have shown courage, adventure and breath-taking commitment
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The Independent Online

It is time enough to ask now the last the big question of this wild and eccentric 17th World Cup. After England's feeble exit, who do we really want to win when the last act is played out in Yokohama on Sunday? My own wish is fervently held. I want to see football's greatest prize go to the team who deserve it most, the team who have brought honesty and passion and good, clean-hearted football to every phase of their effort. I want their captain, the man of the tournament, to collect the trophy on behalf of all those who still believe that the game should be about moral courage and not the ugly, seeping cynicism which of all the leading nations only Brazil are, at least in the way they approach the game, relatively free.

It is time enough to ask now the last the big question of this wild and eccentric 17th World Cup. After England's feeble exit, who do we really want to win when the last act is played out in Yokohama on Sunday? My own wish is fervently held. I want to see football's greatest prize go to the team who deserve it most, the team who have brought honesty and passion and good, clean-hearted football to every phase of their effort. I want their captain, the man of the tournament, to collect the trophy on behalf of all those who still believe that the game should be about moral courage and not the ugly, seeping cynicism which of all the leading nations only Brazil are, at least in the way they approach the game, relatively free.

I want South Korea's Hong Myung-Bo, a real leader, a mature, tough captain, whose nerve held so magnificently when he fired in the winning penalty kick against Spain at the weekend, to hold up the silverware because if he does he could say, uniquely, that not only did he and his team-mates do it for their nation but also for football, for a world game so desperate for new blood and new values. Values which would take it back to its roots, when it was supposed to be about adventure and courage and a willingness to play a whole game and not just for as long as you needed to fashion an advantage to be defended in some hollow impersonation of real competition.

Forget the charitable decisions of the Egyptian referee Gamal Ghandour which ruled out two Spanish goals in Saturday's quarter-final. The old football world is alleging a fix by Fifa, the sport's world governing body, to ensure the passage of one of the co-hosts. Talk about sour grapes of wrath. Host teams, playing in front of passionate crowds, tend to get benefits of the doubt, and anyone who was around when England won the trophy in 1966 can easily vouch for that.

What the fallen powers of world football, notably Italy, and Spain, who lost their nerve and were fortunate to survive against Ireland in the round of 16, France, Argentina, and, not least England, should be weighing up now is the meaning of South Korea's presence in today's semi-final against Germany in Seoul. Is it a freak, a charge England, to their eternal discredit, laid against Ronaldinho's superb free-kick – or is it the result of a magnificent body of work, a five-game exercise in all that is good in the game? Surely it is the latter.

Korea Team Fighting is the perfect label for the unit the veteran Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink, has shaped over the last 18 months. Naturally, the levels of energy achieved by the Koreans has led to the slur that they are on drugs. Hiddink refuses to dignify the claim, preferring to discuss the toughness of the regime which has produced breath-taking physical support for an extraordinary level of commitment, and the eagerness with which his players have accepted a way of playing which is hard on both the lungs and the mind.

It is a game which is fundamentally aggressive, which does not allow any room for long-ball speculation. It requires ceaseless running, which means that the man on the ball always has options on where to pass. It is the kind of football which would have applied heavy pressure to the 10-man Brazilian team which for 35 minutes last Friday so comfortably repulsed the brainless, torpid effort of England.

Perhaps it is no accident that the author of Korea's extraordinary campaign is Dutch. It was the Dutch who so reinvigorated the world game with their 'total football' back in the 1970s, a movement which twice, tragically for the shaping of a new ethos in football, finished one victory short of World Cup triumph, in Munich in 1974 and in Buenos Aires four years later. Rinus Michels had the sublimely gifted Johan Cruyff as his orchestrator of total football.

Hiddink has no such gift from the football gods, but he does have the veteran Hong Myung-Bo, who went three World Cups without a single victory, organising his defence with an iron resolve and a forward like Ahn Jung-Hwan, so shamefully fired by Perugia because he dealt the death blow to Italy, responding to the challenge of his life.

The complaint about a South Korea triumph would be that it would do little for the image of the game. There would be no Zidane or Veron or Totti or Rivaldo, no player of players, no supreme exemplar of the game's beauty.

At this point in football history it is a problem to be dismissed with a shrug. Because of the organisation of European football – which absorbs all of the best South American talent – and its emphasis on money and victory at any price, the old order of the game has been a pathetic presence here. Italy claimed bad luck, but if it is true you make your own it has to be said that the Azzurri went about their work with a whimpering fatalism. They were wretched against Mexico, and when they pushed in front of the Koreans the caution – let us use a polite word – of their football nature came down like a curtain.

The Spanish, the hope of many for a brave and sweeping game, were no less abject against Ireland in the round of 16, and when the referee signalled the onset of penalties the great Raul broke into a broad smile of relief. Was this a team which really thought of itself as the best in the world?

England simply betrayed themselves. Cruyff once said that the world feared the English player because whatever his technical limitations he had a huge heart and a physical presence to intimidate any opposition. Don't tell it to the Brazilians– they will only laugh.

Germany were lucky to survive against Ireland and the United States. All the hauteur they showed in the pounding of the inadequate Saudis shrivelled away. Goalkeeper Oliver Kahn and a fortuitous oversight by the referee, when a German defender handled the ball on the line, saved them against the Americans. Twenty years ago Germany played in arguably the most disgraceful game in the history of the World Cup, a strolling group game against Austria which brought an inevitable draw and elimination for Algeria.

So what, exactly, are the values Korea Team Fighting threaten today in Seoul? Do they make a scuffling attack on classic values of the game? Do they take the penultimate step in extinguishing quality from this World Cup? Or do they seek to nudge a little closer to oblivion the football of fear, of limited action, of hit and run and defend? They take the latter course, no question. Maybe the batteries which were so plainly drained at the weekend by the effects of their work through the tournament, and the need to play Spain with two days less rest, will be insufficiently recharged. Perhaps the Germans will once again find a way to win, and move on Yokohama sniffing their fourth World Cup. It is quite likely, but it will be no matter for celebration beyond the borders of the Fatherland.

Germany have brought little to this World Cup while Korea have brought everything you could ask from any team. They have played to the absolute limit of their ability, and their football has been of excellent quality. They have run and they have passed and they have put the fat old cats to shame.

Whatever happens tonight, and on Sunday, the Koreans will raise a statute to the old football man Hiddink. The dedication will be to the man who inspired a nation. But the wider world of football should see that he has done more than that. He has invited everybody, the wealthy and the poor, the old powers and the new contenders, to look into the mirror. There has been no more impressive image these last few weeks that that of Korea. They have stripped down the deceits of a tired, money-gorged old game and given it new life, new spirit. They deserve to inherit, however briefly, a football world they have done so much to remake.

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